The fifteenth Joe Pickett novel, Endangered, picks up months after Stone Cold, which didn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, but left plenty of loose threads. When we last saw Joe’s eighteen-year-old foster daughter, April, she’d run off with rodeo champion Dallas Cates, who’s family name is synonymous with malevolence in their local community. When we hear of her again, in the opening pages of Endangered, she has been beaten and dumped on the side of the road, barely breathing. The outlook is bleak. Perennial boy scout Joe Pickett is certain Dallas is to blame, and wants revenge; the kind he’d typically rely on Nate Romanowski to deliver. But Joe’s ally is in federal custody, and himself soon the target of a brutal attack. First April, then Nate: all in the space of a week. Are the two events connected? Joe is determined to find out, even as he runs a parallel investigation involving the slaying of sage grouse.
Nate Romanowski has become a crutch in C.J. Box’s long-running series. He’s the Wolverine of Wyoming, in many respects; a ruthlessly efficient killer, willing to do what’s right, even when what’s ‘right’ doesn’t comply with the law. Whenever Joe had a problem, or was unwilling to get his hands dirty, Nate was there, willing and able, and readers loved him for that. In Endangered, Box wisely takes Nate off the table; still a presence, and an essential character in Joe Pickett lore, but disposed of in this episode. His withdrawal allows Liv Brannan, Nate’s girlfriend, to step into the spotlight; as strong-willed as Nate, and tough-as-nails, but without the Special Forces training. She finds herself in a dangerous situation, tied to Joe’s troubles, raw willpower her only ally. She is a welcome addition to the cast.
There is a confidence to Box’s prose. Endangered is an expertly penned thriller, a page-turner punctuated with moments of real emotion. At its heart, this series has always been about family, and that is what has separated the Pickett thrillers from their competition. Inevitably all long-running fiction develops soap opera sensibilities, and readers will have to dampen their incredulity at the Pickett’s unremitting run of bad luck, but these characters have never been anything less than genuine. Their familial bond is refreshing in a genre swarming with protagonists who are alcoholics, or widowers, or nomads, or a combination of all three. Joe Pickett is, and will always be, regardless of whatever wild circumstances he finds himself faced with, a family man. And that family has never been under greater threat.