Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson

Hell is EmptyHell is Empty

by Craig Johnson
Series: Walt Longmire, #7

Hardcover, 312 pg.

Viking, 2011

Read: August 21, 2015

Where Junkyard Dogs started off with a chuckle inducing bang, this one starts slower, and makes it clear early on that creepy and foreboding are going to be the order of the day.

We join Walt and Deputy Santiago ‘Sancho’ Saizarbitoria as they’re transporting three felons to meet up with a prison transport and a FBI team. Two of them are pretty hardened guys, guys who scare people like me — but the third? He’s the kind who scares people like them. He goes by the name Shade, and right away, he fixates on Walt in a pretty unhealthy way. And you know that the rest of the novel is going to be about this.

Turns out, Shade is going to help the FBI locate his first victim’s remains, they’re somewhere around where the meet up is to happen. Naturally, the remains are in Absaroka County, so Walt and Sancho get to spend more time with Shade and the FBI. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s going to happen — Shade’s going to escape, he’s going to kill many law enforcement officials, and Walt’s going to have to save the day. Johnson telegraphs this (there’s no way to avoid it), and even though you know it’s inevitable, you still watch it through half-opened eyes.

Oh, naturally, there’s a record-setting winter storm about to hit, too. Can’t forget that.

As standard, boiler-plate as much of this sounds, Johnson makes it work. It’s taught, it’s gripping, with just the right mix of tension, determination, and humor. It will keep you turning the pages, needing to know what’s coming next. Even as most readers are going to have the whole thing pretty-well mapped out in their heads from the beginning — it’s how Johnson executes this so well is a testimony to his skill and the reason that you’ll keep turning those pages as fast as you can.

Vic and Henry are almost absent through this book — and Cady’s appearance is token at best. But Johnson uses their brief appearances to their most. This novel is about Walt’s struggle against Shade and against nature — both seem to be focused on killing him.

Sancho, who is really becoming my favorite non-Walt character in the series is around more than those other three combined; although after the introductory chapters he’s off-screen until the end as well. Before then, he not only makes amusing contributions to a very dark book, he’s an important part of the plot. After his recent near-death experience and career crisis, Sancho’s taken to trying to expand his horizons and catch up on the Liberal Arts education he skipped over. So he had those who did get that education to compile a reading list for him — a copy of which is included as an Appendix. It’s a good list and would be helpful for most people — and gives us a nice look into the personalities of those that compiled the list.

In the acknowledgments, Johnson talked about how difficult this novel was to write — and I can see why. But, as we have come to expect form him, when he set his mind to it, he pulled it off. A gripping tale of man against nature, man against man, man against himself, told with Johnson’s signature style and wit, with one foot in Dante and the other in Indian folklore. Not an easy task, but one well done.


4 Stars

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