book: Spirit of Steamboat (2013) by Craig Johnson

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A couple of months ago I encountered Craig Johnson’s Longmire series in the form of Junkyard Dogs , and was much taken by what I read — enough, anyway, to resolve to read more in the series. The next that came to hand was this one.

However, where I’d expected another laff-packed mystery, what I got instead was a white-knuckle ride of an adventure yarn. The humor’s there, but it’s not what I’ll remember in a week’s time.

The book’s plot is nothing especially original. It’s Christmas Eve 1988 and a child who’s just lost her parents to an accident and herself needs urgent medical attention arrives in the Wyoming home turf of Walt Longmire, lately elected Sheriff of Absaroka County. The nearest hospital that can give the girl the emergency care she needs for her burns and other injuries is in Denver, Colorado, but there’s a winter storm raging all across the intervening area and the roads are closed. The sole chance to save her life seems to be to try to transport her by air through the blizzard and the winds and the darkness. Trouble is, the only available aircraft is a dilapidated World War II bomber, Steamboat, named for the horse that gave rise to Wyoming’s bucking bronco emblem (at least in one form of the legend).

The professionals balk at the prospect of the flight, so Walt, his ex-bomber-pilot predecessor as sheriff, Lucian, an underqualified copilot called Julie and the town’s elderly doctor, a concentration camp survivor, volunteer to get the old rustbucket into the air and transport the child and her grandmother through several hundred miles of hostile air. Their chances, they reckon, are slim, but they can’t just watch the kid die.

And then, of course, things start to go wrong . . .

As hinted, I’ve read variants of the plot lots of times before, as I’m sure you have too. It’s given a poignant frame story, set in the present day, but that too seems moderately familiar. Where this short novel really scores, though, is in its incidents and its telling. I found myself right there alongside Walt as he and his companions and Steamboat herself battled the elements and the probabilities. The scene in which Walt and Doc Isaac perform chest surgery with juryrigged equipment while the plane’s being jolted all around the sky will likely live with me a long while, as even more so will the experience of Walt trying to get the faulty bomb bay doors to close while 13,000 feet above an invisible ground.

According to Johnson’s foreword, he went to some lengths to get the facts about both Steamboat the plane and Steamboat the horse correct, and that adds an extra dimension of interest to the book. But let’s be straight: What this is, first and foremost, is a good, old-fashioned edge-of-the-seater, one of the best I’ve read in a long while.

Believe it or not, it was only after I’d started reading that I noticed the Santa hat on the cover and the fact that Walt was reading A Christmas Carol and realized I’d quite serendipitously pulled a seasonally appropriate book from the shelf.

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6 thoughts on “book: Spirit of Steamboat (2013) by Craig Johnson

    • Ha! There’s no need to save Christmas books for Christmas — in fact, it’s probably better not to, for fear of suffering the Surfeit of Effing Festive Effect.

      • “I can’t read Jefferies on the Wiltshire Downs,
        Nor browse on limericks in a smoking-room;
        Who would try Trollope in cathedral towns,
        Or Marie Stopes inside his mother’s womb?”
        W,H, Auden’s reason for reading – and writing to – Lord Byron in Iceland. It applies to “Christmas books” too, with some people. All the same, this book does seem to have a bit too many of the standard situations for my taste.

          • I’m a member of the “Not more fucking elves” school when it comes to reruns. On the other hand, if it’s done as well as you say it is here, it is still worth doing. Other people whose opinion I trust have recommended Johnson, so I’ve started on him. All the same I’ll circle this one – to use a suitable flying metaphor – before I land on it.

            • I totally understand what you’re saying, and some of the time I’m strongly inclined that way myself: It’s one of the reasons I so rarely read series books, or more than one novel in a row by a single author, preferring mixed standalones. (I’ve been deliberately going counter to my normal practice these past few weeks, just to see if I can, sorta thing.) And one of the reasons I read so little fantasy these days is because of all the great fat indistinguishable doorstoppers filled with those fucking elves. Yet, at other times, the prospect of a good tale well told is appealing too, just for the ride.

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