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Craig Johnson's books are equal parts mystery, literary novels

Craig Johnson figured he might not get a chance to write a second book, so he packed his first with everything he ever wanted to say about his home state of Wyoming.

"The first draft was 'War and Peace in Absaroka County,' " he says.

A little judicious editing cut the "The Cold Dish" from 600 pages to a more palatable 400, and a rugged mystery series — and star — was born. Johnson will appear Tuesday at Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont to promote "Hell Is Empty," his seventh novel featuring Walt Longmire, formerly a collegiate offensive tackle at USC, ex-Marine and now sheriff of a small, remote county in Wyoming.

Despite the bucolic setting -- or perhaps because of it -- Johnson manages a rare feat: a mystery that is a literary novel. The story starts with a hilarious image: Longmire and his deputy sheriff, Santiago "Sancho" Saizarbitoria, hand-feeding a cheeseburger to a manacled prisoner. It gets infinitely more complex from there: an escaped prisoner with dead bodies in his wake; some unlikely unforeseen accomplices and hostages; and Longmire, never one to stand back and wait for help, tracking the criminals through the Bighorn Mountains.

With a copy of Dante's "Inferno" in his possession, Longmire has unusual baggage. It doesn't give anything away to say the book becomes a metaphor for the 14th-century opus.

"I work on the assumption that every reader is smarter than I am," Johnson says, laughing. "In a sense, I'm writing mystery novels in a renaissance period. Most people read crime fiction for the same reason they read literary fiction. They want fully developed characters, they want artful story lines, they want social responsibility, they want history, they want humor, they want all of these things. And when they get to the end, they also want to know who ... did it. What that does is it kind of raises the bar a little bit higher, so that people who are reading the books are looking for something a little bit more than they can buy in the check-out lane in the grocery store."

Johnson, who spent time as a police officer in New York City before heading west, was born in Huntington, W.Va.. and studied at Temple University in Philadelphia. It is not lost on him that he started in the Mountain State and ended up in a state rife with mountainous terrain.

"Whenever I was looking for a place to settle down, the West appealed to me, and particularly this area," Johnson says. "The nearest town (Ucross) to where I live has a population of 25, so it's very sparsely populated, right at the base of the Bighorn Mountains. I'm drawn to mountains. ... I have a deep-seated need to have mountains around me."

While the wide-open spaces of Wyoming are detailed in Johnson's work, his use of humor to leaven some of the more horrific passages is unexpected. But the lightness intrinsic to a landscape that can be unremittingly harsh during the winter is due in no small part to the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes that populate the region. Johnson recounts a story about driving with a member of the Cheyenne tribe through a reservation. They pulled over when they spotted a kid walking along the road with just one shoe.

Johnson's friend said "Hey, you lost your shoe." To which the boy replied, "No, I found one."

"That's exemplary of what I consider to be mountain humor," Johnson says. "There's a demeaning style of humor in the Appalachian region that goes along with this kind of humor. ... To me, that comes across no matter where the geographical location might be."

Additional Information:

Craig Johnson book signing

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Admission: Free

Where: Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont

Details: 412-828-4877 or www.mysterylovers.com

Additional Information:

Capsule review

A mystery novel set in Wyoming that involves Dante's 'Inferno' isn't typical, and could be hellacious. But Craig Johnson's 'Hell is Empty' manages to entertain by virtue of a compelling, witty cast (notably indefatigable protagonist Sheriff Walt Longmire), a vivid re-creation of Wyoming's mountainous landscape and a plot in which by no means the outcome is certain.

• Rege Behe

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