Thursday, August 25, 2011

C.J. Box's Joe Pickett novels 1-6

Because I've read them in a row, I can't make my mind draw clear borders between the novels, so I'll just treat them as a group consisting of the first six books:
  • Open Season
  • Savage Run
  • Winterkill
  • Trophy Hunt
  • Out of Range
  • In Plain Sight
The series' protagonist is Joe Pickett, and he isn't like a lot of crime fiction heroes. He's not especially troubled, though he has his troubles. He's got a relatively stable family life. He's a game warden in Wyoming, not a cop or PI or even a granny who's too nosy for her own good, and he'd be just fine if all he ever had to do was mount his horse and patrol the beautiful scenery. About the only thing that gets to him is that his mother-in-law thinks her daughter married beneath her, and Pickett knows that, at least financially, she's right. They live a meager existence on the salary of a public employee, and it's a bur in his side.

He's also not an action hero, which is evident early on in the series. He carries an issued gun that he isn't very good with and has his awkward moments, including unknowingly arresting the governor for fishing without a license and getting handcuffed to his steering wheel by a suspect. And he gains infamy by wrecking every vehicle the department sends him, though it's usually not his fault.

So how does such a man get involved in so many (mis)adventures? It all boils down to Pickett's strong sense of right and wrong, which won't let him quit a matter without seeing it through to a just conclusion. That's essentially what this entire series is about: a man trying to do what's right in a world where a lot is wrong.

The crimes and villains in the stories spring from their environment. Land battles. Poaching. The everyday conflicts that sometimes get out of hand, you'd think, but a lot of times there's a darker plot afoot that dwarfs the original incident(s) Pickett sets out to investigate. And at every stage he's not only confounded by the criminals, but all-too-often by his own people. The bureaucracy--on the local, county, state and federal levels--threatens to smother him and the corruption threatens to kill him, or his family.

Pickett gets his first taste of that official brand of betrayal in the debut, Open Season, in which he investigates the murders of several Outfitters. It introduces us to a number of the local characters that will complicate Pickett's life down the road, in addition to being a solid story per se. Savage Run finds us three years down the road, where our game warden gets drawn into the case of--get this--a radical environmentalist getting blown up by an exploding cow. As always, there's something deeper and bigger going on, but I can't say more. In Winterkill we first encounter some of the series' most important characters, including the shady but fiercely loyal Nate Romanowski and his .454 revolver, whom Pickett has to prove innocent of a murder. I see these first three books as a collective; each capable of standing alone but also serving as the appetizer for the series.

Then we have Trophy Hunt. It's a lot of fun seeing how down-to-earth Pickett handles things when the Twilight Zone drops right on his head. Cattle and wildlife are being mutilated, and everyone in town has a theory, from a cult to UFOs. Then two men are killed and mutilated, and the book grounds itself in fast-paced, earth-based, action. Well, maybe it's all earth-based.

The next two books, Out of Range and In Plain Sight mark a big development in Pickett's character. He's still the common man seeking justice, but by now he's seen a whole lot of awful, and it's affected him. When he goes to Jackson Hole to investigate the suicide of a friend--and fellow game warden--Box gives us this remarkable juxtaposition of our protagonist and the dead man. What road is Pickett going down? we wonder. Tiny fissures begin appearing in him and his family. It's great reading, because Pickett is in more danger than just the physical sort. And in In Plain Sight just when you think the strain of his previous adventure is healed, a man from the Picketts' past comes looking for revenge not just against Joe but his whole family. The tension Box creates is remarkable, and the climax truly memorable.

And, just think, there are five more novels I've yet to read!

Next time: Eri Nelson and Lee Lofland

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