Book vs. Television: What TV's Sheriff Longmire Is Doing Wrong

The Walt Longmire Mysteries by best-selling author Craig Johnson debuted in 2004 with The Cold Dish, and since the release of the second book in 2006, Death Without Company, a new installment has come on the heels of the previous each year. A television series based on the books premiered in 2012, and survived a switch after its third season from the A&E network to Netflix. A sixth season is set to air in September and there’s been some buzz about a movie follow up.

Dedicated fans have witnessed the television version of Sheriff Walt Longmire, played by Robert Taylor, grow weary of following the rules while solving some complicated cases, not to mention coming up against roadblocks and dead-ends as he digs for answers in the murder of his wife. We’ve seen Johnson’s creation, from page to screen, resort to some dubious practices while seeking justice for himself and those around him.

For me, as a former military policeman and special deputy US marshal, and now, on occasion, as a contract security specialist, this conduct stands out like a sore thumb. especially when compared to the character in the books. Though many of Longmire’s better qualities remind me of the cowboy comportment of Marshal Matt Dillon, who served the citizens of Dodge City with as much loyalty and integrity, it’s the Absaroka sheriff’s riven, off-the-cuff approach that has led to questionable use of certain police tactics, resulting in some sticky entanglements and culminating with the pending wrongful-death lawsuit.

Though many of Longmire’s better qualities remind me of the cowboy comportment of Marshal Matt Dillon...it’s the Absaroka sheriff’s riven, off-the-cuff approach that has led to questionable use of certain police tactics.

Let’s begin with the strange, unprecedented case of Barlow Connally who went to Longmire’s ranch prepared to kill himself and, in the process, frame the sheriff for murder. When Barlow pulled his gun, Longmire reacted quickly, thinking self-defense, and shot Barlow only to discover the unsolicited visitor had no bullets in his gun. While dragging Barlow’s ass outside to rush him to the hospital, the dying man pulled a knife and stabbed himself, his final words, “Good luck explaining this one.” Longmire then does something unfathomable: he yanked the knife out of the cretin’s carcass, putting fingerprints all over the ‘murder’ weapon! While I can appreciate stress levels during such a bizarre encounter, law enforcement officials know they must remain as clinical as possible in their dealings with even the most unusual set of circumstances—and a man coming in your home to kill himself is damn peculiar, no doubt about it—but, given Barlow’s devious character, placing prints on the knife was a case of profound bad judgment.

The second example, with an ex-soldier with PTSD named Tamar, was another situation where a lack of prudence baffles the mind. At first, Longmire’s actions were commendable, when, with great trust and courage, he handed his firearm to the soldier’s psychiatrist, Dr. Donna Monaghan, while Tamar still had her rifle aimed at him. This impressive action demonstrated that the sheriff meant no harm, but when Tamar left the lake house, and went down to the dock, Longmire followed shortly after, gun back in hand! Remember, she’s an army vet with PTSD—why would he do that? But the biggest absentminded step comes next. She asked to be handcuffed and for a moment alone, and instead of waiting nearby, Longmire turned his back and departed. So, it didn’t come as a shocker when she jumped into the water, hands bound together. Even Houdini needed a hidden key to survive being submerged. Poor choices escalated a bad situation to a lethal conclusion, which seems to be becoming a habit.

A third instance I’ll mention appears to be about jurisdictional issues. When a high-level Irish mob killer needed to be transported out of the county jail cell by Federal indictment, Longmire asked one of his deputies to make the run by himself. While I can understand many officials may dislike having their toes stepped on by an outside presence such as the Feds, it’s sheer madness to think that an escort of that nature doesn’t need backup. So, when the deputy’s vehicle is ambushed, Longmire’s flawed decision to adhere to his policy about transporting prisoners shows gross incompetence and could have gotten his deputy killed … all because of a territorial pissing match with the Feds.

Then there’s a final issue of pushing punks around for information in Dirty Harry fashion. It becomes insult to injury when going from harassing drug pushers in front of your own deputies to ‘attacking’ the slimeball of a man who’s being called in as a witness at your deposition in front of the sheriff from another county to glean the evidence being built against you. These types of moves could spell career suicide.

On the flip side, reading Mr. Johnson’s stories from which some of the main storylines for the television show are derived, we have more time to ‘witness’ the inner mechanisms turning to reveal motivations. Like a poet ringing out every word to extrapolate the deepest meaning, Mr. Johnson delves into a Mariana Trench of complex emotions. The Los Angeles Times nailed it with, "Like the greatest crime novelists, Johnson is a student of human nature. Walt Longmire is strong but fallible, a man whose devil-may-care stoicism masks a heightened sensitivity to the horrors he's witnessed.”

Longmire once asked, introspectively, “Do you ever feel you’ve created more evil than you’ve stopped?” You’re a good man, Walt Longmire. No doubt about it. But for god’s sake, sir, stop being so intransigence, digging holes that would take Mike Mulligan and his shovel to get you out of.

Image of The Cold Dish: A Longmire Mystery
Author: Craig Johnson
Price: $8.80
Publisher: Penguin Books (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 400 pages
David Cranmer

Column by David Cranmer

David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. He is the author of Torn and Frayed and the creator of the Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles Western noir series. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.

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Comments

tontowilliams's picture
tontowilliams August 11, 2017 - 12:19pm

I think you have captured it about right David. The tv series is a bit too far fetched at times, to make it more watchable, but has the effect of making me shout at the screen. That said I still like it and watch it when I can, and was pleased when it was resurrected after cancellation.

Christina Re's picture
Christina Re from the United States is reading Your Screenplay Sucks! August 11, 2017 - 12:42pm

You've made some really good points, David. I was actually thinking about the books vs. the tv show myself recently. While I enjoy both, each medium includes differences to Walt's character which are difficult to understand.

In the television show, Walt never drinks and drives. It's a pretty big sticking point, considering he was attacked during his campaign for having empty cans in his car. Also, he ends up putting someone in jail for the hit-and-run accident with Kady. But in the books drinking and driving is arguably a favorite pastime of his. Is he likely to hit much out on those wide open roads? Yeah, he is. Someone get this man a Kegerator for Christmas so he can drown his sorrows in the comfort of his own home.

Also, the development of Branch as a prominent character made so much sense. The first few books in the series don’t have the overarching issues of the series. In the books his character is so unlikeable you wonder why he is still on the payroll. Changing the power dynamic between Walt and the Connolly family was a smart move for a series story arc.

I think both the books and the TV series are great. I’m looking forward to future Longmire stories in any format.

Thanks for the article!

JasmineConradd's picture
JasmineConradd September 28, 2017 - 7:11am

Well , that's an old story . Books are always better. I don't want to sound pathetic but in my life I only once loved movie better than a book. That time I had to do my assignment to analyze it deep.