When he dreamed up the main character for what turned out to be a best-selling series of crime novels, Craig Johnson tried to put a new twist on the age-old genre of the who-dun-it.
"It was an opportunity to try to do something different," said Johnson, of his character, Sheriff Walt Longmire, who serves as the top law enforcement official for the least-populated county in Wyoming, the least-populated state in America.
From the beginning, Longmire didn't fit the mold of what most people might envision as a sheriff in a rural, Western county. He was very well-read, he played jazz and classical piano, and he took a job in law enforcement after working as a Marine Corps investigator during his tour of duty in Vietnam. His best friend is Henry Standing Bear, who hails from the Cheyenne Nation, just across the border in Montana.
Johnson also sketched Longmire as possessing qualities that he identified with the "Western spirit": tough, smart, decent and kind.
"He has a code he lives by," said Johnson, the featured author at the March 13 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar.
In an interview before his talk, Johnson said he can relate to his character, Sheriff Longmire, because he spent his young adulthood working as a cowboy on ranches, ultimately buying his own piece of land, where he built a log house and started a cattle ranch. He also spent some time on the rodeo circuit.
He picked the spot for his ranch, Ucross, Wyoming, population 25, after delivering horses from Montana and falling in love with the region. His ranching days ended when his books started to catch on, and he had to travel around the U.S. and abroad to promote his literary work.
"The Western Star," the 13th and latest volume in the Longmire series, marks something of a departure for Johnson - it's the first book that has a true cliff-hanger ending, as the story carries over to the next book in the series, "The Depth of Winter," which is due out soon. Johnson also weaves two story strands together in "The Western Star," one in the past, in which a group of Wyoming sheriffs rides a train across the state at the beginning of Longmire's career as a lawman, and a related, current day story about an inmate seeking compassionate release from prison.
Johnson is a prolific writer, putting out a new installment in the Longmire series each year.
The Longmire character should also be familiar to fans of TV crime drama, as Netflix turned the books into a TV series now in its sixth season. It stars Robert Taylor in the title role.
The series is filmed in New Mexico, but the actors make their way to the town of Buffalo, Wyoming every summer for "Longmire Days," a festival celebrating the fictional sheriff and his exploits.
The event stretches the town's resources to the limits as some 20,000 Longmire fans turn up to celebrate, said Johnson, with ATMs running out of cash and restaurants running out of food. Businesses love the injection of cash into the local economy, he said, and the locals (all 4,590 of them) don't seem to mind too much.
"They're A-okay with putting up with it for one weekend of the year," Johnson said.
Johnson said he likes the TV series, and doesn't mind that the script writers take liberties with his story lines, even changing the endings. The scripts pull "bits and pieces" from the books, but often the stories branch out to different places than the books.
As the author, Johnson serves as "executive consultant" for the series, meaning he reviews the scripts for factual accuracy and sometimes offers suggestions. He also did a cameo in the sixth season of the show, in which he was on-screen for less than a minute and delivered no lines.
Johnson said he enjoys the relative isolation of his ranch, where he lives with his wife, Judith, because it affords him quiet time to write, especially during the winter months. But the couple enjoy getting to travel as well, when Johnson is on the road promoting his books.
While he said living in a place like Southern California would offer too many distractions, when it comes to a short visit, "California is an easy sell come winter time."
For more information, visit craigallenjohnson.com.