Book reviews: History, suspense, memoir and more

steamboat“Spirit of Steamboat” and “Wait for Signs,” both by Craig Johnson. Viking.

Shoppers for last-minute Christmas presents could do worse than to pick up one, or both, of these two quick reads by the creator of Wyoming Sheriff Walt Longmire, now the title character in a TV drama.

“Steamboat” is no mystery at all but a quick retreat in time to 1988, when a young Sheriff Longmire recruits the help of former Sheriff Lucian Connally to fly a desperately injured accident victim to Denver. It’s Christmas Eve, the weather is horrible, and the only plane available is a World War II veteran.

There’s no real suspense here, since we meet all the characters, still alive years later, in the first chapter. But Johnson can spin a tale, and he will have you on the edge of your seat as the plane fights its way to Denver.

“Wait for Signs” is a collection of a dozen Longmire short stories, drawn from stories Johnson writes every Christmas Eve. It’s a mixed bag, and an excellent accompaniment to “Steamboat” for Christmas.

“Duck, Duck, Goose,” by Hank Shaw. Ten Speed Press. Hardback, 229 pages. $24.99.

duck duckThis may look like one of those recipe books designed for the coffee table instead of the kitchen, but don’t be fooled. Shaw, a food writer, has compiled a serious volume of recipes and techniques for cooking ducks and geese, both wild and domesticated.

That duck on the frontispiece is carved out of wood, but those inside are seriously edible. Sections are included on buying, storing and hanging birds, in whole or in part, with extra chapters on giblets, charcuterie, fat and eggs. From basic smoked birds to barbecue, soup, casseroles and gumbo, it’s all here.

“Stone Cold,” by C.J. Box. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. 370 pages, hardbound. $26.95.

box.coldYear after year, C.J. Box cranks out successful and highly readable novels—14 novels about fictional Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, plus four standalone novels.

So perhaps it’s to be expected that on occasion he might slip a notch or two. That seems to be what happened in “Stone Cold,” the latest Joe Pickett novel and a bit of a disappointment.

The opening is promising enough. Nate Romanowski, Joe Pickett’s shadowy but loyal friend, has always lurked around the edges, and sometimes beyond the edges of the law. In the opening pages of “Stone Cold,” he appears to have gone completely over the edge. As the novel opens, he is sneaking up on a log home on the banks of the Bighorn River near Fort Smith with mayhem on his mind.

Romanowski blows past security guards and a technician and shoots the cabin owner, Henry P. Scroggins III, through the heart. Scroggins, we learn, is a corrupt and criminal businessman, and we are assured that the world will be better off without him.

But has Romanowski gone from being an outlaw on the side of justice to a cold-blooded murderer? I have to be careful here not to give away the ending, but the answer never becomes quite as clear as one would like.

The result is strangely unsatisfying, with an occasional plot hole and a mystery not quite solved. Well, there’s always the next book.

“The Road Taken,” by James O. Southworth, edited by Linda Grosskopf. Call 545-9761 for copies. Paperback, 307 pages.

southworthThis should have appeared last Christmas, but we never quite managed to get that issue out. James Southworth is best known as a former state legislator, frontman for the bluegrass group Southbound, and a prolific writer, including a number of stories that have appeared in the Outpost.

Some of those stories are reprinted here, along with tales of his life and career. Southworth is a diligent writer with a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor that holds him here in good stead. Grosskopf, an experienced writer and editor, restrains some of his grammatical enthusiasms, with good results.

“Death on the Greasy Grass,” by C.M. Wendelboe. Berkley Trade. Paperback, 384 pages.

greasy grassWendelboe attempts to tread the same ground that C.J. Box and Craig Johnson have walked before him. We get an FBI agent who witnesses a murder right at the reenactment of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

His search to find the killer takes twists and turns, with occasional flashbacks to the original battle. There are plenty of suspicious circumstances, a lovely woman and a corrupt businessman.

But Wendelboe has not yet acquired the craftsmanship of Box and Johnson. The humor often falls flat; the prose creaks along. Reading it reminded me of watching Brooks Robinson playing third base on TV back in the 1960s.

Nothing to it, I thought. Then I became a public address announcer watching 12-year-olds trying to make those same plays. Quickly, I figured out why everybody said Robinson was so great.

Here, Wendelboe’s book serves as a foil to show off just how good Box and Johnson are.

“Montana 1864: Indians, Emigrants and Gold in the Territorial Year,” by Ken Egan Jr. Riverbend Publishing. Paperback, 223 pages.

montana-1864Ken Egan Jr., executive director of Humanities Montana, used to teach at Rocky Mountain College, where I now teach, and his “Hope and Dread in Montana Literature” remains my go-to source when English students lack the right cocktail of those two qualities. Now he has written “Montana 1864,” a breezily readable account of a key year in Montana history.

Why key? Not only was 1864 precisely 150 years ago this year, it also was the year in which Montana became a territory. If Mr. Egan hoped to cash in on sesquicentennial nostalgia, that ship appears to have sailed. But he has much to say about a year when the Civil War was still raging, gold was beckoning, and Indians were still a force to be reckoned with.

It also was the year in which Henry Plummer, who seemed to regard law enforcement and law breaking as complementary trades, was hanged for his crimes. Future Copper King William Andrews Clark was shipping freight to the mines, Granville Stuart was on his way to becoming a prominent rancher, and Charlie Russell was born. Also that year, gold was found in Last Chance Gulch.

White settlers were pouring into Montana, making the people who already lived here increasingly nervous. Their voices, including those of Crow Indians Plenty Coups and Pretty Shield, also are heard here.

The book is filled with familiar names, but many of the stories and sources will be new to all but the most dedicated students of Montana history. Mr. Egan has an engaging style, and while his mix of original sources and his own present-tense narration can occasionally be confusing, time spent with this book is well spent, both entertaining and informative.

“Kevin Red Star: Crow Indian Artist,” by Daniel Gibson and Kitty Leaken. Gibbs Smith. Hardback, 188 pages. $50.

Red StarThis really is a coffee-table book, a lavish and rich collection of some of the best-known works by Montana’s best-known Indian artist. Chapters are included on his childhood, stages of his career, and his approach to art, but the real charm is the many pages of color plates of his work.

If you are a fan of Red Star’s work, that’s all you need to know. If you aren’t, then it’s time you took a look.

David Crisp has worked for newspapers since 1979. He has been editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost since 1997.




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