NEW YORK, Sept. 22 (UPI) — Cassilly Adams’ 1888 painting Custer’s Last Fight — copies of which still hang in drinking establishments across the American West today — was the inspiration for author Craig Johnson’s latest Sheriff Walt Longmire adventure.
His novel Next to Last Stand hits bookshelves Tuesday.
“The best way it has been described is the piece of art that has been critiqued by more inebriated amateur art experts than any other piece of art in the world. It’s very true,” Johnson told UPI in a recent phone interview. “It’s in every bar, saloon and restaurant all over the West.”
Custer’s Last Fight memorialized the brutal battle between U.S. Army Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry and several Native American tribes during the Great Sioux War of 1876.
The original painting was said to be lost in a fire in 1946, but the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Association cemented its popularity by giving copies to customers throughout the United States.
Next to Last Stand finds Longmire, a fictional Wyoming lawman of great integrity and intelligence, investigating the death of Charley Lee Stillwater, an elderly veteran who apparently knew more than he let on about the fate of the original painting.
“That’s the key element to the whole book — did this painting survive? And who has it? And why did this veteran die at the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Durant with a Florsheim shoe box filled with $100 bills that added up to 1 million bucks? Where did that money come from? It’s kind of fun to have Walt in an art heist book,” Johnson said.
Walt’s new case is research oriented, something the lawman loves having studied English at USC before being drafted and becoming a military police officer in Vietnam.
“I sometimes wonder if that isn’t one of the heartbreaks of who he is. He probably would have been a lot happier owning a bookstore or being a librarian or doing research, but instead he got a badge,” Johnson said.
Although the novel is fast and fun, it also furthers Johnson’s mission of creating “socially responsible crime fiction” by addressing serious themes relevant to 2020 readers, such as racism.
Walt, who is White, and his best friend Henry Standing Bear, who is Cheyenne, civilly debate the finer points of Custer’s Last Fight, including who the heroes of the battle were and where copies of the painting should really be hung. (Henry thinks it should be in the men’s bathroom of his bar the Red Pony.)
The book also offers a glimpse of Stillwater’s “fish out of water life” as a Black veteran of the Korean War living in a predominantly White region.
“There was a lot there to work with,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of issues to take into consideration and, for me, I know well enough that’s going to be something I have to have, or else I’m going to get bored with a book.”
The novel has been well-received by veterans at the real-life Soldiers and Sailors Home, which Johnson has been visiting for more than 30 years.
“I talk to the guys, hear good stories from them. Some of them actually made it into the book,” the author said.
“It’s a nice way to keep those guys alive,” he added. “I like to think that I’m giving them a new lease on life with the book while they’re still here.”
A theme of retirement runs through Next to Last Stand. Walt is thinking about it. His hard-working secretary Ruby is plotting her escape. But Johnson said fans shouldn’t worry about saying goodbye to these much-loved characters anytime soon.
“It takes me four books to get through one year of Walt’s life, so here we are 16 years after the first book came out in ’05 and Walt is only four years older than when we first started,” Johnson said. “He is aging a little bit slower than the rest of us, but that’s OK with me because I get to hang on to him for a little bit longer.”
Johnson already has written the next two books in the series, but isn’t divulging details about them.
Living on a ranch in a rural, low-population state means there hasn’t been a tremendous change in lifestyle for Johnson and his wife, Judy, as most of the country hunkers down and social distances during the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic has kept the couple from visiting their daughters and granddaughter in Philadelphia and limited the writer’s book tour to online and radio appearances.
“I love going out and touring and talking to people who have read the books or seen the TV show. For me, it’s kind of a joy. My wife says it’s because I live in a town of 25. I’m just amazed to go out and see anybody,” he said.
Johnson’s best-selling books also were the basis for the beloved TV series, Longmire, which originally aired from 2012-17 and remains popular in reruns. It starred Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips and Katee Sackhoff.
Some of the actors are helping Johnson on the book tour by reading selections of Next to Last Stand in online videos.
“For the last 16 years, it’s me walking in and reading from the book and we thought, ‘This is an opportunity to do something a little different.’ I think it turned out pretty well,” Johnson said.
This summer’s annual Longmire Days fan event in Wyoming was also limited to video conferences instead of the usual in-person panel discussions, parties and meet-and-greets.
“We were very worried about that,” Johnson laughed about going virtual, although a good time was eventually had by all involved.
“Technologically, there is a reason why Walt doesn’t carry a cell phone because I don’t carry a cell phone. Without service, you can take selfies with the antelope, but that’s about it.”
Besides, investigating crime the old-fashioned way is kind of Walt’s trademark.
“I’d rather have Walt in his truck, knocking on doors or doing some sleuthing out there on his feet. That’s a little bit more interesting for me,” Johnson said.
A silver lining to the pandemic is that book sales went up this year over last as many people were stuck at home looking for entertainment.
“That really doesn’t surprise me because, my gosh, one of the ways that you can go somewhere without going anywhere is just diving into the book,” he said.