‘Hell is Empty’ explores good v. evil, with a little Dante thrown in
Since moving to Wyoming in December, I’ve worked my way through the first 10 novels in the “Longmire” series (when in Rome, right?). While they’ve all been entertaining reads, “Hell is Empty,” has resonated with me the most; I’ve always been a sucker for a good fugitive story. With this novel, Ucross resident Craig Johnson takes a time-honored premise and turns it on its ear, giving it a unique feel not typically found in a run-of-the-mill crime thriller.
At first glance, “Hell is Empty,” the seventh in the Sheriff Walt Longmire series of books, would appear to be a cut-and-dry, almost formulaic entry into the hugely-popular franchise. The novel finds its hero and his crew battling sociopath Raynaud Shade, a Crow Indian with a trail of bodies left in the wake of his escape. When Shade grabs a couple of hostages and heads into the harsh environs of the Cloud Peak Wilderness, Longmire gives chase — against his better judgment and that of the people around him. Joining him on the pursuit is an unlikely ally from a previous novel, and a battered copy of “Dante’s Inferno” lifted from one of his deputies. Throw in an element of the supernatural, and the book becomes more than standard mystery fare, at times reading like a feverish dream as the hero begins to lose a handle on his sanity in his single-minded quest for justice.
“That whole book kind of evolved in the sense that, when it started out, it was just a ‘manhunt in the snow’ books,” Johnson said. “I rapidly came to the conclusion that that was just not going to be a book that stood out. It had been done, and done very well. I knew I had to find a different way of having that story evolve.”
Perhaps the most intriguing character of the tale is Virgil White Buffalo, a 7-foot-tall Crow shaman, introduced in an earlier Longmire novel. This time around, Virgil serves as Longmire’s de facto guide through the frozen terrain of the Cloud Peak Wilderness. Virgil’s relationship with Longmire turns funny and poignant, as the sheriff soon realizes the big Indian has his own selfish motives for finding the fugitive.
“I started thinking of an analogous kind of version of ‘Dante’s Inferno,’” Johnson said. “It presented a number of problems simply because suddenly I wasn’t using the structure that I wanted, I was going to have to use the structure that Dante had for his book.”
Having become something of a quasi-expert on “Dante’s Inferno” because of this experience, Johnson said he had a little fun with it on the book tour, asking the audience how many had read the classic.
“I’d ask, and about half the hands would go up,” he said. “Then I’d ask how many people had finished ‘Dante’s Inferno,’ and almost all of the hands would go down. It’s a treatise on 13th century politics, so in many ways it kind of loses its emphasis after a while. There’s only so many ways you can torture people with that.”
Bridging the gap between books and TV
It’s been a busy summer for Johnson, as the novelist has watched the “Longmire” series film its finale, participated with a couple of cast members in the Fourth of July parade in Cody and welcomed thousands of fans of the books and TV series to Buffalo for Longmire Days. All this while prepping for the release of “The Western Star,” the 13th book in the Longmire franchise. Johnson said there exists a nice overlap between fans of the books and fans of the show.
“It kind of cross-pollinates,” Johnson said. “An awful lot of the people that watch the TV show have read the books, and vice-versa. A lot of people have very strong feelings about which they like better. It’s nice that we have two different versions to choose from.”
That said, Johnson admits there are a large number of fans of the show who have never read a Longmire book. He attributes this to the size of an audience a TV show is able to instantly attract.
“When the TV show started out, it was averaging close to 5 or 6 million people a night watching it,” he explained. “It’s very difficult in the publishing industry to get those kinds of numbers that quickly. And I don’t even know how many countries it’s showing in around the world.”
As the series winds down (filming on the sixth and final season wrapped in July and will be available on Netflix next month), Johnson said he’s been hearing rumors that Netflix may not be finished with the Longmire character quite yet.
“You hear rumors that Netflix is getting a little bit nervous about the fact that millions of people signed up for the service to watch Longmire,” Johnson said. “Once the show is gone, are people going to drop their subscriptions? So we’re hearing different rumors about the possibility of TV movies or limited-run series. We’ll see what happens.”
Regardless of what happens with the television version of the character, Johnson said he has no intention of slowing down where the novels are concerned.
“I’ll be writing the books for the next 30 years, so I’m not worried about it at all,” Johnson said.
Inside the writing process
The Longmire novels are interesting in that they can’t really be lumped into a specified genre: Are they Westerns? Crime thrillers? Literary fiction? Ask three different fans of the books, you might get three different answers, and that’s just how Johnson likes it.
“I kind of like working in the margins, I have to admit,” he said. “That’s not a good marketing ploy for up-and-coming authors planning on making a career of being a novelist. Writing in the margins makes it difficult for the publicity and marketing people. The industry likes to pigeonhole you, but I like working in those margins so the books can be all of those things.”
Johnson said just what’s featured on a book’s cover can work against its success.
“A lot of people don’t pick up the books because they see a cowboy on the front cover,” Johnson said. “Then they accidentally start reading it, and find that it’s different from what they thought it was going to be. I think there’s a larger market out there for people who are not just looking for the standard stuff; they’re looking for something that has a little of all of it to bring to the table. It makes it a much better read.”
Writers have their particular ways of working when they sit down to write a new book, and they are often as different from one another as the writers themselves. Writers like C.J. Box and John Sandford have a very detailed outline and direction ready to go before they write a single word, while Stephen King has famously said that at times, when he sits down to write, he hasn’t a clue as to where the novel will eventually go. Johnson plants himself firmly in the first camp.
“That last one kind of scares me a little bit,” Johnson said, laughing. “Tony Hillerman used to do that; he would just jump in and see where it goes. And I would tell him, ‘Tony, there’s no way in hell I would ever write a book like that.’ That would be like me and you jumping in my truck in Cody and saying, ‘Hey, let’s go to Jacksonville, Florida, but let’s not take a map.’ Let’s throw a map in the glove box, even if we don’t use it; let’s have it, just in case.”
Johnson likes to refer to his books as “socially responsible crime fiction.” An important part of that social responsibility is knowing not only who did the crime, but why.
“You need to know why that person did what they did; you can’t just make it up at the end,” Johnson said. “You kind of need to know all of the things that have led to this person doing something as drastic as taking another person’s life. I like to know everything about that storyline before I ever sit down and start writing it.”
That’s not to say the writer can’t be open to some improvisation as the book begins to take shape.
“It’s a combination of the two,” Johnson explained. “You need to have some serious thought into what the book is about, but you also have to be open to the possibility that the process will change the story itself. You hope and pray that you make some discoveries along the way. It will evolve during the course of the months spent writing the book.”
Johnson’s next novel, “The Western Star,” finds his titular hero revisiting his early years as a deputy in Absaroka County in the early 1970s. Fresh off his tour as a Marine investigator in Vietnam, the young lawman finds himself aboard a train during the annual Wyoming Sheriff’s Association with 24 veteran sheriffs along for the ride. Johnson said the book is a bit of a departure for him in that he needs to balance the past and the present while still telling an engaging story.
“Walt’s kind of a newbie in this one; he’s only been a deputy for a couple of weeks,” Johnson said. “So what do I do? I throw him on a train with all of the sheriffs in Wyoming. It’s like being the only private on a train full of generals, so I had to approach the character in a very different way, as well as deal with the aspects of this being a period piece.”
Johnson said he researches each book for about a year before he begins writing it, an aspect of the process he thoroughly enjoys — though his wife may not always agree.
“It’s really a great revenge to have,” he said. “I can lay in there on the sofa by the wood-burning stove, and my wife will say, ‘Are you going to do anything today?’ and I’m like ‘Hey, I’m working here!’ It’s every husband’s dream.”
Each book poses different challenges for Johnson, whether it’s becoming an expert on “Dante’s Inferno,” or dredging up every article ever written on paleontology and dinosaur hunting in Wyoming. These challenges, according to Johnson, are what makes the books a joy to write.
“I do want people to walk away from the books having learned something, having something to take with them,” he said. “Not that it was just a clever whodunit that they aren’t even going to remember two weeks after they put the book down. ... You have to reinvent yourself every single time when you’re writing these books so it doesn’t become formulaic.”