In the last novel, An Obvious Fact, Johnson plays with lines and themes from Sherlock Holmes while letting us get to know that very important woman in Henry Standing Bear's life while Walt solves a murder. In this book, Johnson plays with Murder on the Orient Express while letting us get to know that very important woman in Walt's life while Walt solves a murder. It struck me while reading that as large a shadow that Martha Longmire cast over the books (particularly the first few), we really don't know much about her. We don't learn that much about her, really, but we see her interact with Walt and Henry -- and you walk away with a much better sense of her as a person, not her as the giant hole in Walt's life.
How do we get this sense? Half of the novel takes place shortly after Walt returns to the States after his time in the Marines, and he's been employed by Lucian as a deputy for a couple of weeks. Lucian is attending the annual meeting of the Wyoming Sheriff's Association, and he brings Walt along. This meeting takes place on The Western Star, a passenger train. Shortly after boarding, Walt meets one Sheriff who is convinced that one (or more) of his fellows is murdering people across the state (sort of a Dexter-vibe to the motive), and he needs someone with fresh eyes and a lack of knowledge of the Sheriffs to help with his investigation. This would be Walt, naturally.
Meanwhile, in alternating passages/chapters set in the present, Walt is in Cheyenne for a highly politicized parole hearing (that becomes something a little different) to keep this particular killer behind bars. Johnson's very good about not tipping his hand about the killer's identity until Walt uncovers it. While doing so, he stays with Cady and his granddaughter, and annoys some pretty powerful people in the state.
I found the Walt on a Train story entertaining more than intriguing, but the final reveal was well done and made me appreciate it all the more. But while I wasn't that into the mystery, I really enjoyed watching Deputy Walt and Sheriff Lucian do their thing. It was sad watching Walt's idealism surrounding the societal/cultural changes that the 60's promised come into contact with the cold reality that humans take awhile to change. I was really intrigued by the present day story, on the other hand, and wished they could get into more of the details about the case, but it'd have been hard to do while keeping the identity of the killer under wraps.
The events that are revealed after the reveal (in both timelines) will leave fans unsure what to do with themselves until Walt Longmire #14 comes out. I have some thoughts about what that book will end up being, but I'll hold on to them for now. But it's going to be something we haven't seen before.
But this book? Very entertaining, illuminating and the whole time, it slowly but surely reels you in and sets you up for the biggest emotional moments that Johnson has penned to date. Johnson earned the 5th star for me in the last 13 pages.