Maybe it's my meds making me grumpy, but I’m not a great fan of the TV series Longmire. Whatever TV touches usually makes a mess of it, and its manhandling of Craig Johnson’s original Longmire novels illustrates precisely why.
First off, the ebb and flow of a neatly constructed plot from Johnson’s pen is chopped into fragments to fit into a TV hour and then once again squeezed between commercial breaks. Then the generous complexity of his situations and characters (as in this one, Death Without Company) is dumbed down with sex, violence, and visual stunts.
Lost are (a) the novel’s pacing that gradually builds the elements of a puzzling mystery (the death by poisoning of an elderly Basque woman), (b) the page-turning suspense that rivets a reader in the final chapters as all the chips finally fall and action turns life-threatening (a manhunt in a blizzard), and (c) the wry, smart humor and understatement that come with Longmire’s amused first-person narration, which to me is the greatest loss of all:
Victoria Moretti didn't like being called handsome, but that's how I thought of her. Her features were a little too pronounced to be dismissed as pretty. The jaw was just a little too strong, the tarnished gold eyes just a little too sharp. She was like one of those beautiful saltwater fish in one of those tanks you knew better than to stick your hand into; you didn't even tap on the glass.
By comparison, the TV series makes Longmire seem darkly angry, weakened and unfocused in part by grief at the death of his wife and in part by what seems like dread and self-doubt. He is a wounded warrior in the fight against crime.
Johnson’s Absaroka County and Durant, its county seat (claimed by the town of Buffalo, Wyoming, as its fictional double), are faithlessly portrayed in the A&E series with all its location footage shot in New Mexico, which with the multi-season run of Breaking Bad seems to be aggressively gunning for TV production projects these days.
The irony at the center of a Walt Longmire novel is his being an aging white male surrounded by women with more than a feminist bias or two, and an Indian friend more than a little proud of his heritage and impatient with Longmire’s relative ignorance of it. Yes, Longmire has the authority and the responsibility that go with the badge he wears, and he wears it as gracefully as he can. But the series writers would have us see him instead as an old-time Western lawman, like Gary Cooper in High Noon, tough and stoic.
Johnson makes of him an enjoyable, affable character, who makes you smile and can get you laughing. He’s intelligent and capable of wisecracks, as when he utters a Nebraska Cornhusker cheer: “Go Big Red, and a Big N for Knowledge.” Beleaguered, yes he is, but not seriously so.
His wry observations of human foibles are sprinkled with quotes from Shakespeare, which go over the heads of his bewildered associates. And you appreciate his ability to get things done, even if it means slipping around the rules and drawing on a lifetime of learning how to second-guess and outsmart people likely to run afoul of the law.
My advice if you like the A&E series is not to pick up a Longmire novel. You will see how poorly Craig Johnson’s skill at storytelling is served by the hash TV makes of it. I probably should say “slick” hash, because it’s all done so smoothly you don’t suspect how cunningly unfaithful it is to the original. Or, sample a novel and see what you’re missing. What’s the worst that can happen? You may meet a Sheriff Longmire you like better and forget to put the book down again.
Death Without Company is currently available in print and ebook formats at amazon, Barnes&Noble, and AbeBooks.
Author's photo, readwestfoundation.org
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