Kindness Goes Unpunished
by Craig Johnson
Published by Viking
304 pages, 2007
Buy it online
Long Way From Home
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
In this era of street corner surveillance cameras, data warehousing and DNA tests, urban sleuthing -- in fiction as in real-life -- is suddenly all about keying in the numbers and calling in the SWAT teams.
This has made Craig Johnson's Walt Longmire series, set in rural Wyoming, a true standout. It's a spine-tingling throwback to a tougher era. The wide-open spaces of fictional Absaroka County offer opportunities to commit a crime, sight unseen, and plenty of ways to conceal the evidence in the often storm-torn high-country desert. Sans local crime lab assistance and reliable mobile phone service, Sheriff Longmire relies on his skills at reading the land and reading the people in a tight-lipped community where long-concealed grudges can, and do, lead to murder.
The first two entries in this series, The Cold Dish (2004) and Death Without Company (2006), had satisfyingly complex plots revolving around Native American issues and Western land deals. And there was definitely a nod to the best works of Tony Hillerman. But while Hillerman's cast of characters has been pretty much cop-centric, Johnson's books serve up a whole community and showcase Longmire's deep sense of responsibility for it. In the opening pages of his third and latest adventure, Kindness Goes Unpunished, we meet up once again with Dorothy (owner of the Busy Bee Café) and Henry Standing Bear (the sheriff's Cheyenne friend) and encounter town characters Omar and Myra Rhoades, a local divorced couple whose stormy reunions feature high-powered weaponry and require police intervention. As usual, Johnson makes the most of his colorful material. He can introduce a character, such as Longmire's deputy, Victoria "Vic" Moretti, in one deft sentence: "Wyoming had never elected a female sheriff and the chances of their electing an Italian from Philadelphia with a mouth like a saltwater crocodile were relatively slim."
As an unabashed fan of the graying sheriff and this series' haunting high-country setting, I was more than slightly alarmed to find that Kindness Goes Unpunished is set in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia? It's never easy for a sleuth to get traction in a strange city, and it's particularly hard work when the sleuth is a cop. That's because the out-of-town investigator frequently finds (as Longmire does here) that the local lawmen don't want any "help" -- or interference.
So, is this sweeping geographic transplant Johnson undertakes a success? Yes -- though in a couple of places, it's a pretty close call. Fortunately, Johnson's tough-guy tone remains pitch-perfect and his writing is laced with wry humor. And the involvement of Vic Moretti's Philadelphia relatives (including her seductive mother, Lena, and three police officer brothers) firmly links Longmire into the environment of Pennsylvania's City of Brotherly Love.
As Kindness opens, Longmire is headed to Philly to visit his daughter, Cady, a recent law-school graduate now working at a big law firm. Longmire is curious about -- and a bit wary of -- Cady's new boyfriend, a high-powered attorney with whom she seems utterly infatuated. But shortly after he arrives, Cady is rushed to the hospital, unconscious and possibly brain-damaged following a brutal attack. Circumstantial evidence suggests that the attacker may have been the boyfriend. Outraged and terrified, Sheriff Longmire is not content simply to hand over to the local police the damning evidence he finds in Cady's cell phone voice-mail; he takes the investigation into his own experienced mitts.
Longmire is, of course, way, way out of his element in the land of inner-city drug lords and hostile Philadelphia cops. And that introduces an element of discomfort, not only for Longmire, but for the reader as well -- particularly when an odd plot twist sends Longmire chasing after the local drug dealers. It was also disquieting here to realize that Cady, who in the previous two books was presented as a bright and attractive, if rather spoiled young woman, has such deeply flawed judgment when it comes to men. After he hunts down and confronts her boyfriend, Longmire is appalled to discover that the man Cady so admired cares less about her life-threatening injuries than he does about himself. But before the sheriff can find out what really happened between the couple, someone tosses the boyfriend off a bridge -- and Longmire himself comes briefly under suspicion for the crime. He soon learns that Cady's boyfriend had gotten her tangled up with a whole cabal of shady characters: corrupt attorneys, drug dealers, ex-cons and a well-meaning colleague who bears a guilty secret.
Kindness Goes Unpunished is at its strongest when author Johnson writes about the dark tensions among families and friends, and describes the uneasy alliances he forges with the flamboyant Moretti clan. With their stern detective father, the parents' troubled marriage and the five siblings -- four of them cops -- the Morettis deserve a Philly-based series all to themselves. When prodigal daughter Vic, Longmire's Wyoming deputy, flies back to her hometown unbidden in order to ride shotgun on her boss' unofficial investigation, the story heats up in ways that I hadn't thought possible. Take this scene, for instance, in which Vic and Longmire attend an art museum party and there skirmish with Vince Osgood, a crooked district attorney whose underworld connections may help them unravel the mystery:
She didn't say anything, but took a sip of her dirty martini, and I watched the iridescent sparkling in the tarnished gold eye, and was thinking that I was doing exactly what I'd been fighting against for years: falling in love with my deputy.
Someone was standing beside us. It was Osgood and the young woman I'd seen him with in the lobby. "I'm sorry if I'm interrupting."
"Howdy," I stepped back and introduced Vic. The blonde's name was Patricia Fulton, and she was making it abundantly clear that we hillbillies were not the people she had come to meet. He dismissed her to get drinks, which produced volumes of lower lip, but she disappeared.
Osgood gave Vic a strong look, from her turquoise choker to her boots, and I had the urge to toss him off the balcony. "So, you're from Wyoming?"
She finished off her cloudy cocktail and took an olive out that had been impaled by a tiny, plastic sword. "I'm from Ninth Street, shitbird, and don't you forget it." She bit the olive, turned, and started for the bar in a calculated retreat.
"Did I say something wrong?"
"No.?" We both looked after her.
"Is she a Moretti Moretti?"
"I'm afraid so."
With Vic out of earshot, Osgood gets down to business, trying to lure the sheriff to a late-night meeting on the bridge where the boyfriend was killed.
"It has to do with your daughter."
"Cady. Then I'm interested, but I don't have the time to go anywhere else." I pulled out my pocketwatch. "As a matter of fact, I'm only going to be here for about twenty more minutes."
He thought about it. "I'll meet you outside."
"There's an alley behind the building; it turns a corner and there's a loading dock. I'll meet you there in fifteen."
I took a tip from the blonde and tried to look bored. "You bet."
As you might suspect, the alleyway conference goes badly. Very badly. And there's more than enough of this sort of action, driven by a very busy plot, to keep you feverishly turning pages and starting with surprise, right up to the final chapter.
But Johnson's Philadelphia story, nicely wrought though it is, misses out on the depth and roots that characterized the first two books, set in Wyoming. In the final pages of Kindness Goes Unpunished, we find that Sheriff Longmire is heading on back to Absaroka County. I, for one, hope that the series will, too. | April 2007
Karen G. Anderson is a longtime contributor to January Magazine. Formerly a writer with Apple's iTunes Music Store, she currently works in Seattle as a freelance Web content guru and author of the blog Writer Way.