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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Serpent's Tooth by Craig Johnson (hardcover, $26.95)

It's a fine thing to wait all year for something gleefully special to happen: Christmas, Halloween, a birthday … the latest Walt Longmire adventure.

Craig Johnson continues to write about HIS characters -- Walt, Henry, Vic, Dog, The Basquo, and Ruby -- never mind what A&E is doing to them on "Longmire." A&E does a most excellent job of portraying these characters for television, but they are from an alternate universe, similar to Johnson's but not the same.

It is Johnson's characters who juggle humor and drama so well, and it is Johnson's Walt whose first-person voice sounds so clear and true that surely he must be real. There is no substitute for the original telling.

Absaroka County, Wyoming, has had more than its share of problems over the years, keeping Sheriff Walt Longmire pretty busy since "The Cold Dish" appeared in 2004. Time has not stood still for any of the characters, but most especially not for Walt and his nearest and dearest. Cady, his daughter, is expecting a baby any day. Walt and Victoria "Vic" Morelli, one of his deputies, are a couple. (A couple of what, Walt would ask.) An actual mystery storyline seems almost superfluous to the laughs and tears conjured by the continuing stories of the regular characters.

When Johnson isn't catching us up with the next episodes in the lives of the fine people of Durant, he does have a major story to tell. In the case of "Serpent's Tooth," it starts with the appearance of a teenager, a strange young man who says he was cast out of a Mormon group in South Dakota. That leads to the discovery of a related group right in Absaroka County.

Upon investigation, the Mormon group presents some peculiarities that lead Walt and his crew to a whole lot of people whose last name is Lynear, an old polygamist who builds spaceships, a 200-year-old man, some very un-Mormon-like people and behavior at the compounds, a Mexican "poet lariat," and a fistful of trouble.

The phrase, "a serpent's tooth," is from Shakespeare, and it is a reminder that Walt is more than he appears. Yes, he was raised in Wyoming. Yes, he has known Henry Standing Bear since they were both wee cubs. Yes, he was a tough Marine, a football star, a no-nonsense modern frontiersman. But it is also true that Walt has a degree in English literature from USC. He doesn't do it often, but he can quote The Bard, and his bretheren probably, with unconscious ease.

In his typical endearing fashion, Johnson gives us a good story, something important to think about, and more poignant moments than Dog can shake a leg at.

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