Once upon a time I read Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish and liked it. It had some rough edges to be sure, but nothing that couldn’t be explained by it being a debut novel. I felt certain the next entry in the series would be better.
Unfortunately, I’m wrong about that. Death Without Company has all the flaws of The Cold Dish in greater helpings. I’m more than a little disappointed.
What’s wrong with this book? Roughly speaking, almost everything.
The Plot. The plot is a stupid mess. A old woman dies in a nursing home. Nothing so odd about that. But Lucien, Walt’s predecessor as sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, insists it was murder. Out of respect, Walt investigates a little, and finds out that in fact it was! How did Lucien know? It was a subtle method of poisoning, after all. Well, it turns out that Lucien was briefly married to her, way back in the 1950s. As a setup, this is brilliant it has to be said. It really drew me in. Unfortunately, from there, nothing makes any kind of sense. We’re introduced to a dizzying array of red herring relatives and acquaintences, none of whom seem to have much to do with much of anything. Obviously some of them are in some way responsible for all the bad things that happen, but there’s no sense of fair play. We’re introduced to them at the author’s whim as and when they’re useful, and after a while it’s impossible to keep up at all, much less care. As in the other book, the final reveal is that the murderer is the only person it really could have been if Johnson wanted a surprise ending. He did, and so it was. And I yawned.
The Ethnic Porn. Johnson is one of those annoying writers – much like the stupid Coen Brothers – who simply can’t tell a story without there being some kind of prominent ethnicity involved. In this book, for absolutely no reason, it’s the Basque. There are a lot of Basque people. Just because … I mean, I honestly don’t know. I guess Johnson just decided he wanted all of his readers to be aware of the Basque Country, and so he added it in. Nothing about any of the plot needs this. There are some throwaway mentions of the ETA, but it bears on nothing. We’re introduced to no Basque customs or culture. True, someone eats some Basque pastries, and we meet a priest, but that’s about the extent of it. And then, to throw gasoline on the fire, Walt comes across as completely unaware that there are any Basque people living in his county, which is described as the "least populous county in the least populous state." Making it effectively impossible that this sheriff has never been to at least the Basque pastry shop, but there you go.
The Political Correctness. Once again, Henry is better than Walt in every way, and Walt makes it clear that Cheyenne Indians are better than white people. Awesome.
Walt is a Stud. Even though he’s fat and old and a widower, the ladies throw themselves at Walt. Which just seems implausible, to say the least. But you know what the only thing worse than an implausible stud for a lead character is? An implausible stud for a lead character who can’t seal the deal. Which Walt can’t. Don’t get me wrong – it’s entirely plausible that Walt is hesitant around women. He’s out of practice, after all, and he’s still reeling from the loss of his wife. I just wish it had stopped there. Walt fancying some ladies he knows he can’t have and wouldn’t have the gumption to go get anyway is more like it.
The Coincidences. Characters show up just to have skills Walt needs. For example, he hires a new deputy who just happens to speak Basque. You know, only one of the more obscure languages of the world. So naturally someone turns up in backwater Wyoming who can speak it – a fact he doesn’t even list on his application? There’s tons of stuff like that in here.
What’s right with this book? Well, there are some things, but it’s hard to say what they are. Johnson has some kind of a gift for keeping your attention. Mostly, I think, it comes down to Walt and Henry. There’s just something about that friendship that is really compelling and keeps you reading. It is, in fact, the only thing about this book that was interesting to me. Henry’s sardonic sense of humor really makes the book, and Walt’s resignation to being second among equals also kind of grabs you. It’s one of those books where you don’t much care what it’s about or what’s going on, you just kind of want to hang out with Walt and Henry a bit. That’s what it’s good for.
It is enough?
Yes, I think I have to still concede that it is. But a time is coming when it won’t be. The things that were annoying about the last book are back in this one and turned up a notch, and there are definitely limits. Johnson is pushing them, but we haven’t crossed any lines yet.
That’s a fairly subjective look at things, I know, but what do you want from me? It’s the kind of thing that you either like or you don’t. I’m still in the "like" column, meaning I’ll probably read the next one in the series too, but Johnson’s running out of time. Either he learns how to plot and he learns that characters are more interesting than their ethnic labels, or he doesn’t. It’s not looking too hopeful at this point.
Overall Rating C+