Craig Johnson, “Hell is Empty” (2011)

craig-johnson-hell-is-empty-2011“. . . And then there is this: ‘Hell Is Empty’ is a homage to Dante’s Inferno. Johnson has taken images and allusions from that great work about hell, written in the 14th century, and plugged them into his narrative, weaving added meaning into the book and an extra challenge for those readers wishing to search them out.
Early on, readers see that Longmire’s deputy, Santiago ‘Sancho’ Saizarbitoria, is carrying with him a copy of Dante’s Inferno. Johnson mentions it several times – pointing to its hidden role in the book – and Walt later takes a look into Sancho’s copy and stumbles across the opening:
‘At one point midway on our path in life, I found myself searching through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost.’
Walt’s response? ‘Boy howdy.’
Boy howdy, indeed. And so it begins, Walt’s plunge into his own personal hell – both literally and figuratively – filled with allusions to Inferno. Just a few: Walt travels up a mountain – as did Dante. He walks across a frozen lake – as did Dante. He is greeted by a lion – yes, it’s a mountain lion, but so what? And Walt nearly is consumed in a fire.
There are many others. It will be interesting to see Johnson’s fans put together lists and post them on the Internet.
I can tell you that ‘Hell’ sent me scuttling to my bookshelf for a copy of Inferno to see what I could reference. (I also spent a weekend reviewing a SparksNotes synopsis of the great poem in preparation for this review. Please don’t tell my high school English teacher.)
Perhaps the greatest allusion, and another level of the book, is pointed to by Walt’s guide, a Crow Indian named Virgil who first appeared in Johnson’s fourth novel, ‘Another Man’s Moccasins.’
It is no coincidence that the guide’s name is Virgil – Dante was led through hell by the Roman poet of that name. But what comes in doubt as ‘Hell Is Empty’ proceeds is whether Virgil really exists at all. Is he alive? A dream figure? A hallucination? A ghost? The reader must decide that for him or herself – as does Walt.
But Virgil is not just a mountain guide. He also becomes a spiritual guide for Longmire. This book is about a lot more than just a chase in the mountains. Rather, it digs deep into questions of life and death and afterlife. No small task for a 320-page thriller.” [. . .]    –D. Reed Eckhardt, Wyoming News, 26 June 2011