In ‘Hell Is Empty’ Craig Johnson has attempted something very ambitious and done it pretty well but I hope he doesn’t feel the need to do it again.
Unlike its predecessors, ‘Hell Is Empty’ doesn’t have a mystery at its heart. We know from the beginning who the bad guys are, even if we don’t know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing. The FBI have, for various plausible reasons that they’ll kick themselves for later, transported some very bad men into the Wyoming mountains just before a major ice storm (Hey, it’s May, what did you expect at that altitude?). Of course, things go wrong, people die and the rest of the book is about Walt’s relentless, lone pursuit of the men up the mountain in the storm.
At the beginning, this reads like a relatively normal hunt-the-bad-guys plot, with Walt at the centre bringing his unique mix of dry wit, erudite commentary, dogged determination and decisive action to the chase.
Then, as Walt gets tired, the altitude climbs and the weather gets worse, we move into something that feels more like a Vision Quest. It’s not clear whether Walt is being guided by a real person (a character we met in a previous book) or by a spirit guide appearing as that person or whether Walt is just hallucinating as his refusal to give up bumps into the physical effects of hypothermia.
I think Craig Johnson does a splendid job of walking this is it real or isn’t it line while keeping the tension high, the action constant and still finding time for to share Walt’s reflections on Dante’s ‘inferno’ and the idea that the worst hell is in the mind and Walt’s deep understanding of how a monster like the man he is chasing is created and the terrible harm that he does.
The final scene at the top of the mountain is beautifully done. It’s dramatic, visually stunning and works as a conclusion to both the mystical and the material explanations of Walt’s quest.
The epilogue was also very distinctive. It went beyond the ‘let’s wrap up the loose ends and finish on a positive note’ scope of the traditional epilogue and showed that Walt can’t just shrug off his experience and step back into his old life. That rang true to me and I admired it.
Although I could see that this was both a bold book to write and that it was well written, it wasn’t as much fun as usual. Walt’s head is a fascinating place to visit but an exhausting place to live in. In the books so far, Walt has been supported by a cast of interesting characters who aid or obstruct him in solving mysteries and bringing the bad guys to justice. In ‘Hell Is Empty’ we have nearly half a book that is Walt all the time and I found it tiring.
So, I’m hoping book eight, ‘As The Crow Flies’ brings me back to more familiar, less ambitious territory that’s easier for me to enjoy.
Still, I recognise that, as is the way with Spirit Quests, the Walt who came down the mountain is not the same Walt who went up it and I’m intrigued to see how that change will manifest in future stories.