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hell is empty

24 november 2011

Craig Johnson's Hell Is Empty appears to be the seventh in yet another of the crime series where I haven't read the first six (or twelve or eighteen). Johnson is highly-regarded as a mystery writer and a crafter of neo-Westerns, and the prominent placement of Hell Is Empty in a recent Penguin catalog led me to his work for the first time.

Hell Is Empty is a crime novel, certainly: a serial killer has busted loose, leaving a trail of mayhem, and sheriff Walt Longmire investigates. But we're far from the world of procedural: the investigation consists of tracking the killer into the wilderness. And since the wilderness is well west of the Mississippi, we're in the world of the Western; it's the 21st century, and the tracking is done via SUV and snowmobile, but it might as well be railways and horses. The tracking takes place in late winter, in the gathering snow, so we're also in the adventure-story precincts established by Jack London (and populated by such recent genre writers as Stan Jones). There are motifs from Native American writing, from ghost stories, from Vietnam-veteran stories, and from both allegory and the vision quest; to make matters really intertextual, the whole novel takes its framework from Dante's Inferno (though its title comes from Shakespeare's Tempest).

Most essentially, though, Hell Is Empty is one of those novels that begins with a big splash of action, never lets go, and never slows down. Disbelief must be promptly suspended, and kept on hiatus for the duration. Bad guy Raynaud Shade is a type of Hannibal Lecter, and just about as easy to detain or deter as the gourmandizing doctor. When the novel opens, Longmire is escorting Shade to an appointment with the FBI. It doesn't seem possible that Shade could escape from the custody of so many lawmen; it also doesn't seem likely, by the laws of thrillers, that he won't.

So begins the chase. The details are executed in first-rate narrative. But there is much to miss if you're swept away by the narrative. I'm a literature professor, and I thought I had a casual enough acquaintaince with Dante, but I am sure I still missed stuff. I mean, I didn't miss the fact that for some of the quest, Walt Longmire is led by a guide named Virgil. But the structure of the journey is cleverly inverted. Much of it takes place in a selva oscura, the "dark wood" where the Inferno begins. But while Dante and Virgil go down into Hell, Walt and Virgil go up, toward the highest peak in the range. Along the way, Walt encounters and outwits bad people: a waitress motivated by lust, a convict motivated by gluttony. But Raynaud Shade is driven by something purer: absolute treachery, the sin of Cain and Brutus and Judas. And like Dante's absolute sinners, he's waiting for the protagonist in the coldest possible place.

One generally assumes that the heroes of crime series will emerge and riveder le stelle. But Craig Johnson keeps you guessing. Hell Is Empty is exceptional crime fiction. Oh well, I only have six Walt Longmire novels to backtrack and catch up with before Johnson can publish the eighth.

Johnson, Craig. Hell Is Empty. New York: Viking [Penguin], 2011.