Thursday, June 2, 2016

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson (2015)

Cover blurb

When Jen, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found surfaces in Sheriff Walt Longmire’s jurisdiction, it appears to be a windfall for the High Plains Dinosaur Museum — until Danny Lone Elk, the Cheyenne rancher on whose property the remains were discovered, turns up dead, floating face down in a turtle pond. With millions of dollars at stake, a number of groups step forward to claim her, including Danny’s family, the tribe, and the federal government.

As Wyoming’s Acting Deputy Attorney and a cadre of FBI officers descend on the town, Walt is determined to find out who would benefit from Danny’s death, enlisting old friends Lucian Connolly and Omar Rhoades, along with Dog and best friend Henry Standing Bear, to trawl the vast Lone Elk ranch looking for answers to a sixty-five-million-year-old cold case that’s heating up fast.

My thoughts

Today the fossilized remains of Sue the T. rex are the centerpiece of the Field Museum in Chicago, but in the early 1990s those “dry bones” were at the center of the largest legal battle in paleontology. I won’t go into the details about the case other than to warn you against watching Dinosaur 13, the terrible, one-sided “documentary” made about the whole sordid affair. (Two good takedowns of the film can be found here and here.) The most you need to know for this review is the fossil ultimately sold at auction for more than $8 million, and the legal wrangling around Sue was the inspiration for Dry Bones, a murder mystery starring the popular Wyoming sheriff Walt Longmire.

I have never read a Longmire novel before Dry Bones and while I was dimly aware of the TV show based on the book series, I haven't watched any episodes. That said, each book is largely a standalone novel. Prior knowledge of what has come before isn’t required, but it certainly helps when it comes to understanding the relationships between characters. Longmire himself is part Wyatt Earp and part Sherlock Holmes: A college-educated cowboy who is as comfortable speaking Latin as he is riding in the saddle. He is the sheriff of Absaroka County,  a fictional Wyoming county bigger than Rhode Island in terms of land area but with only 30,000 residents. Dry Bones begins with Longmire and his Deputy Sheriff/lover Vic Moretti investigating the death of Danny Lone Elk, a Native American rancher who seemingly drowned while fishing. The problem is Lone Elk was the only person able to verify the ownership of Jen, a huge T. rex skeleton claimed by both the local museum and the rancher’s family. Longmire comes to suspect that Lone Elk’s death wasn’t the accident it seemed, and he is pretty sure the killer’s motive has something to do with the multi-million dollar fossil everyone is fighting over.

Dry Bones is a well-written crime novel but not a very satisfying one for readers new to the series. The first half of the book focuses on a subplot that I’m sure will have a major emotional wallop for longtime fans, but for the rest of us it seems an unnecessary diversion from the central mystery. That said, the subplot is dropped midway – as is a major character – and the story kicks into high gear when minor characters start disappearing and Longmire begins to unravel why Lone Elk was murdered. The identity of the killer isn’t hard to puzzle out, but the author throws in enough twists to keep you guessing how events will unfold.

As far as criticisms, I was annoyed that the case against selling scientifically valuable fossils was made through the mouth of a character who embodied every bad stereotype about government employees. The author obviously wasn’t interested in a nuanced portrayal of the issue. Also, magic is real in Longmire’s world. The main character experiences visions portending to future events and his best friend is a clich├ęd Native American shaman who dispenses sagely advice. Not sure why the inclusion of magic bothered me so much – it just seemed at odds with the otherwise down-to-earth tone of the novel.

Overall I enjoyed Dry Bones but suggest you read some of the earlier books in the series before picking this one up. There is a major development in the novel that I’m sure will have huge implications for the characters moving forward, but without some grounding in their backstories, it doesn’t have the narrative heft that it should. Dry Bones is the 16th novel in the Longmire series, so you have some catching up to do.

Trivia
  • The title is taken from the religious tune of the same name, which itself was inspired by the Bible verse about a “valley of dry bones.”

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