Hell is empty, its denizens poured out to populate the pages of the seventh installment of Craig Johnson's popular Walt Longmire mystery series (The Cold Dish), where a prisoner transfer goes very wrong when a hardened killer escapes with other prisoners and hostages while he is leading lawmen to the remains of a young Indian boy. For those not familiar with the series, it blends crime fighting with American Indian spiritualism, similar to Tony Hillerman's acclaimed mysteries. But Johnson's world is bleaker, his characters darker, and the frigid high plains winds erase any memory of Hillerman's sun-drenched desert settings.
Hell Is Empty is more mad dash than mystery, a muscular story of guns and grit, man against man and man against nature. The plot requires a certain suspension of disbelief as the hero, aging ex-Marine Sheriff Longmire, single-handedly dispatches a cadre of cold-blooded thugs while climbing the snow-encrusted peaks of northwest Wyoming. Longmire is a tad bland, a white man in Indian territory whose personality pales in comparison to his native-American cohorts. Luckily, in this novel he is joined by his longtime friend, Virgil White Buffalo, a 400-pound Crow recluse cast in the unlikely role of guardian angel. Buffalo's character adds color and much needed humor to the tale, as together they track the killer up the Bighorn range.
While Johnson's use of Dante's Inferno as a literary prop stretches the reader's tolerance at times, the characters' ascent is indeed hellish, pulling them deeper into a hypothermic fever dream where the line between the living and the dead blurs. --Tom Lavoie