Never underestimate the power of a long, tall cowboy with a big hat and a big heart. Depth of Winter (Viking Books), the 14th book in Craig Johnson’s Longmire series debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times Bestseller list, attesting to the popularity of crime novels set in remote, fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming, under the shadow of the Bighorn Mountains, near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.

Mystery fans with a penchant for western locales have found a home in the unstoppable juggernaut that is Sheriff Walt Longmire’s loyal fanbase that began in 2004 with The Cold Dish. The A&E television series, “Longmire” kicked off in 2012; its six seasons are now on Netflix.

But it’s Craig Johnson’s authenticity that keeps the franchise growing. Meeting Johnson in the parking lot of the Vero Beach Book Center in Florida recently, one could almost catch a whiff of horse from his cowboy boots. Dressed in cowboy hat, denim jeans and long-sleeved cotton shirt, he looked as if he’d just ridden into town from his ranch, even though it’s in Wyoming.

Johnson was in the middle of a two-month publicity tour, one or sometimes two bookshops a day, a schedule interrupted only when Hurricane Florence canceled his stops in North Carolina.

Stepping inside the Vero Beach bookshop, he enthralled a packed audience of more than 100 with stories about his research for Depth of Winter, which pits Longmire against drug dealers who have kidnapped his daughter, Cady, and taken her to Mexico.

Caption: Craig Johnson on tour for Depth of Winter, 14th in the Sheriff Walt Longmire series, at the Vero Bearch Book Center, Vero Beach, Florida. Photo Credit: Joanna Poncavage

Depth of Winter is a bit different than most of the other books, said Johnson. Longmire ventures far afield, leaving his trusted posse behind. He’s also going up against some very bad men indeed. There will be blood.

To write authentically about Longmire’s rescue efforts, which involved travel by mule, Johnson dropped 28 pounds to meet the weight limit for riding a mule into the Grand Canyon. In El Paso, Texas, he hired a guide (a kind of reverse coyote) to take him into the dangerous sections of Juarez, Mexico. And to bone up on people who disappeared in Mexico, he read a biography of Ambrose Bierce.

Johnson’s fans often go the extra mile. Roy Harrell of Cocoa, Florida, drove to the bookshop in his 1996 Ford Bronco, decorated to look just like the one Sheriff Longmire drives. Harrell, dressed in cowboy attire to match Johnson’s, said he discovered the Longmire series on Netflix just a year ago. “We enjoyed the show so much,” he said. “A man trying to do right, wanting to be right in a world that’s gone crazy.”

Caption: Roy Harrell, left, and his Sheriff Walt Longmire 1996 Ford Bronco   replica, and series author Craig Johnson. 
Photo Credit: Joanna Poncavage

Also in attendance: Members of Facebook’s Longmire Posse Official Fan Site (126,000 followers) who campaigned to get the TV show picked up by Netflix after A&E dropped it; a couple from England who lamented their lack of “Longmire” on Netflix there, and someone who gave Johnson two cans of Rainier beer on ice in a Ziploc bag.

Why does Longmire drink Rainier beer, someone asked. “It’s a good working class, blue collar beer,” said Johnson, who has made appearances at all 71 libraries in Wyoming, asking nothing more than a six-pack of the stuff in return.

Want more authenticity? Buffalo, Wyoming, now hosts Longmire Days, drawing crowds of 20,000 to a town of barely 5,000 for Longmire-themed events and a chance to mingle with “Longmire” actors, including Robert Taylor (Longmire), Katee Sackhoff (fiery, blonde Philadelphia police transplant Vic Moretti), Lou Diamond Phillips (Henry Standing Bear, Longmire’s Cheyenne friend and owner of the Red Pony Bar), and Adam Bartley (the often surprising The Ferg).

Longmire Days began several years ago when the Buffalo Chamber of Commerce asked Johnson to do a book signing and 300 people showed up. In the rain. Now a three-day weekend event, “The grocery stores and restaurants run out of food, and the ATMs run out of money,” says Johnson, and business is brisk at the Bucking Buffalo Supply Company, a store managed by his wife, Judy, selling cowboy and Indian arts, clothes, and Longmire souvenirs.

Plans for a Longmire movie are stalled between Netflix and Warner Brothers, but Johnson has no plans to stop writing. “I really love what I do,” he told his Florida audience. I really enjoy Walt’s company, and seeing where’s he’s going and what he’s doing every day.”

Depth of Winter is now available for purchase. 

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Craig Johnson is the author of eight novels in the Walt Longmire mystery series, which has garnered popular and critical acclaim. The Cold Dish was a Dilys Award finalist and the French edition won Le Prix du Polar Nouvel Observateur/BibliObs. Death Without Company, the Wyoming State Historical Association’s Book of the Year, won France’s Le Prix 813. Another Man’s Moccasins was the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award winner and the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers’ Book of the Year, and The Dark Horse, the fifth in the series, was a Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. Junkyard Dogs won the Watson Award for a mystery novel with the best sidekick, and Hell Is Empty, selected by Library Journal as the Best Mystery of the Year, was a New York Times best seller, as was As the Crow Flies. The Walt Longmire series is the basis for the hit A&E drama, Longmire, starring Robert Taylor, Lou Diamond Phillips, and Katee SackoffJohnson lives in Ucross, Wyoming, population twenty-five.