“My Dad is a game warden for all of the mountains as far as you can see,” writes Joe Pickett’s daughter, Sheridan, for a school assignment. “His job is to make sure hunters are responsible and that they obey the law. It can be a scary job,” she continues, “but he’s good at it.” Indeed, WINTERKILL demonstrates just how good Joe is, and how frightening his job can be.
The arrival of the Nation of the Rocky Mountain Sovereign Citizens in Twelve Sleep County is bad news for Joe. Worse is the murder of District Supervisor Lamar Gardiner, mere moments following his arrest, which brings US Forest Service investigator Melinda Strickland and FBI sharpshooter Dick Munker, a veteran of Waco and Ruby Ridge, to town. As if that wasn’t enough, the birth mother of Lucy, whom she abandoned years earlier, and the girl the Pickett’s have been in the process of adopting ever since, has demanded her daughter’s return. And who is the enigmatic Nate Romanowski, with his penchant for large-calibre handguns, bows and arrows, and falconry? An ally or enemy, or something in between?
CJ Box’s novels, set in unfamiliar terrain, are always a breath of fresh air. Joe Pickett is an unassuming hero – a friendly, good-natured, family man. In WINTERKILL he is pushed almost to breaking point, and witnessing the seemingly infallible game warden falter is utterly enthralling reading. The narrative snakes dependably, and the story rockets along, barring the occasional (but absolutely necessary) break to refocus on the other Pickett family members. When Joe is facing impossible odds, and insane scenarios, these intervals are delightful reminders of his underlining normalcy.
While the third Joe Pickett novel leaves plenty of plot threads untied, to be picked up on in later instalments, it serves perfectly as a standalone. Its emotional repercussions will be felt by readers regardless of the length of their relationship with the character.
The fourteenth Joe Pickett novel, STONE COLD, is an adequate installment in the long-running series starring crime fiction’s favorite Wyoming game warden. Long-time readers will enjoy the soap-operatic elements offered here – Box has created a grand supporting cast of characters who disappear and reappear throughout the series, and this entry features one particular unexpected return – and while it’s always a pleasure catching up with the Pickett family, it’s the core plot that lets STONE COLD down.
Following on directly from the events of 2013’s BREAKING POINT, Joe Pickett finds himself working as a trouble-shooter for the governor, and assigned to finding out the truth behind the enigmatic rich stranger named Wolfgang Templeton, who is single-handedly keeping Medicine Wheel County afloat – but might also be funding a group of covert private assassins. Joe is sent in undercover – albeit, under his own name and occupation as a game warden – to determine the veracity of these rumors. Of course, it’s pitched as a simple assignment: observation only. And, of course, in typical Pickett form, he can’t help but get involved and raise the stakes . . . and instigate the possible return of series favorite Nate Romanowski to his life. And as this is happening, Joe’s eldest daughter Sheridan is spooked by an aloof boy in college, who she believes might have sinister intentions. When a few hunting rifles go missing, it seems obvious: something bad is going to happen, soon.
The twin plots are simple, and unravel with great pace, but little surprise. New readers might find events uninspiring, while regulars will find some comfort in the novel’s minimalism, and relish the call-backs to previous novels, and the re-emergence of past characters. STONE COLD is a novel crafted for the loyalists, but even then, it’s one that falls into that middling category; it’s just not an installment that will live long in the memory, unlike its predecessor, BREAKING POINT. As a single entity, then, it’s not the best; but as part of the vast, complex collage CJ Box has been piecing together for fourteen novels now, it’s worthy of its place in the canon. And the ending suggests there’s more upheaval to come in the life of the Pickett’s.
The most striking facet about Joe Pickett, the protagonist in CJ Box’s long-running series, is his uniqueness in the crowded crime-fiction genre. He’s a bright light in a world of darkness; a family man, who doubts himself, who doesn’t carry around an aura of invincibility. He’s human. More than that, he’s a game warden in Wyoming, which is another brilliant swerve on established genre tropes; Joe Pickett’s no chain-smoking, drunken, downbeat detective. He’s a man dedicated to maintaining the sanctity of his region, balancing his love for the environment and living off the land with the coldhearted fact of life that such a way of life is becoming increasingly difficult.
The pace of OPEN SEASON is brilliant, though I didn’t recognize it at first. At one point, early on, I questioned its lethargy – things were happening, but not quickly (but never to such a degree I considered putting the novel aside) – but the further I got into the novel, the more I understood its pace to be very deliberate. Box’s narrative is captivating. He shifts focus between Joe and his daughter, Sheridan, and litters the story with a believable supporting cast; from Joe’s disagreeable mother-in-law, to the local sheriff and Wincey, an ex-colleague. All the while, the mystery thickens, and the plot builds, perfectly, to a credible, violent crescendo. I was actually quite upset one a character very close to Joe is shot – a twist I didn’t see coming – and the repercussions of which haunt me, a week after reading the final page. I read a lot of crime novels – very rarely do such moments resonate for such an extended period.
OPEN SEASON is a wonderfully different crime novel. Its characters and setting substantially differentiate it from the rest of the pack, and demonstrate how malleable this genre can be. Crime doesn’t have to be set against the backdrop of a granite cityscape; it lives and breathes out in the open air, too.