I wish I knew what it was about Joe Pickett novels that made them difficult for me to write about. I ended up not writing anything about the first two books in the series and it took me three attempts to get this done (which was followed, naturally, by saving this as a draft rather than scheduling the post…). In the end, I was a bit more spoilery than I like to be, but the book has been out since ’04 (the audiobook since ’14), with 17 more books in the series. I’m giving myself a little more leeway with it than I’d normally grant myself.
Joe Pickett is wrapping up a pretty routine day when he stumbles on to a U.S. Forest Service Supervisor acting in an irrational (at best) manner. While Joe’s trying to apprehend him (I’ll spare you the details, but it’s similar to the incident that kicked off the first book, and will give Joe’s critics plenty to mock him about), he’s murdered in a noteworthy manner.
As he was a witness (and the only one who can lead anyone to the crime scene), Joe’s attached to the investigation that features state officials, the Sheriff’s office and a Forest Service official (who brings a reporter in her wake). They quickly identify a suspect and make a fast (and brutal) arrest. Something in the way that the suspect reacts makes Joe wonder if they’ve got the right guy.
This wondering is compounded when the suspect reaches out to Joe a couple of days later to ask him two favors. Nate Romanowski is, among other things, a falconer who left two birds behind when he was arrested. Favor one is to feed the birds. Favor two is to get him out of jail—Nate and Joe have never met before, but Nate’s read about him and figures Joe’s his best shot after the events of the last two novels.
From a thing or two I’ve read, I think Nate’s going to be around for awhile. Which is fine with me, I enjoyed his character a good deal. He’s a former special-ops guy who wants nothing to do with any governmental entity anymore. He just wants to live on his own terms and take care of his birds. I could be wrong, but at this point, it looks like Box is establishing Nate as Joe’s Hawk/Joe Pike/Bubba Rogowski/Henry Standing Bear-figure. Although really, to qualify as Joe’s lethal pal, is a low standard—it’s not like Joe can use a firearm with any kind of accuracy. If my hunch is right, and he’ll be around more in the future, I’ll be very happy to know him better.
As before, Joe’s daughter Sheridan is a Point-of-View character as well. She doesn’t play as large a role in this novel, but when she shows up, it matters. Her appearances in the narrative are also a pretty good signal that it’s time for something heart-wrenching to happen.
Before I forget, I want to say something about Joe’s family. I love, love, love his family. His wife, Marybeth, may be the best Significant Other in crime fiction—supportive, tough, she’s not a wilting flower nor an obstacle to his work. His other daughter, Lucy, is as cute as you could hope for (am sure we’ll get something more than cuteness from her in a while). And how many crime fiction heroes are plagued by a mother-in-law like his—the dynamic between the two is wonderful.*
* Wonderful to read, that is. It’d be a miserable, unhealthy, and precarious situation to live through.
There are three factors that make it difficult for Joe (or anyone else) to investigate a murder. The first is snow. The novel takes place in the days before and after Christmas and even for this section of Wyoming, the snow is heavy. The second complicating factor is the arrival in town of a large group of people trying to shake off their pasts and find a peaceful place to live (I’ll explain in a bit). The third factor is that one of this group is Lucy’s mother—we saw her last in the first book when she abandoned Lucy after her husband’s murder. In the ensuing two years, Joe and Marybeth had taken her in as a foster daughter and were trying to adopt her. Until Mom showed up with a court order form a crooked judge demanding Lucy be turned over to her.
One of these would be difficult for Joe to overcome—all three? That’s just mean.
The group of people that came to town (technically, a campground outside of town) could be considered Survivalists, I’m not sure the best way to describe them. Most are those who were around during the biggest law enforcement stand-offs in recent history: e.g., Waco, Ruby Ridge, Montana Freemen. Their leader assures Joe (and would assure others if they’d listen) that they’re just looking to live a quiet life outside of Federal control.
But Strickland (the Forest Service official) doesn’t see them that way. She’s convinced that they’re anti-government activists, probably terrorists. They’re a threat that she’ll do anything to put down. And she (and her FBI cronies) are looking for a way to create another stand-off. Given the out-of-the-way nature of their location—and the snow—it’ll be a stand-off they can end without the press interfering. No press means the Feds can do whatever they think they need to in order to stop the stand-off.
By and large, the people working for the Federal Task force looking into the murder, the Survivalists, etc. are decent people trying to do their job—but Strickland and her cronies (and the Sheriff) are focused on their goals. The Survivalists/Freemen/whatever are antagonistic to the government, but they’re not necessarily trying to overthrow anything. Box does a truly commendable job of being sympathetic to their concerns/issues without coming down in their favor. It’s a real tightrope he’s walking along here, and he pulls it off magnificently.
I’ve now read six books by Box—the first three in two series.* And three of those (you could argue four of those, I guess) Box does something almost unthinkable to his protagonists/their family/friends. So many authors would do the kind of thing I’m talking about once very 5-8 books, and it’d be a big deal (think of the Battle in the Ministry in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). But Box does it routinely. Does this lessen the impact? Not for me yet. In fact, I couldn’t believe that he’d done what he did in this book for a few minutes, I kept waiting for something to happen revealing X had only appeared to have happened. It’s just brutal. How Pickett can make it to book 20 boggles my mind given the beating these people take. I’m not sure I’ll survive that long, given only The Highway Quartet Book 2, and Winterkill (I’m honestly still reeling from the first Pickett novel, Savage Run
* Okay, I read a stand-alone back in 2009, but that’s beside the point.
I do not think that Box did a sufficient (or credible enough) job explaining the odd behavior of the victim in the books opening pages. He does spend all of a sentence or two giving us Joe’s theory about it. I don’t buy it. This single point has been driving me crazy since the murder—yes, it’s overshadowed by the rest of a very strong book that shocked, surprised and entertained me so well. But…it’s going to be a long time before I can read a Pickett novel without hoping that he’ll revisit this and explain it better (I don’t expect Box will do so, but I’ll hope for awhile).
I really don’t have a lot to say about Chandler’s narration. It’s good, without drawing attention to itself. I’m pretty sure that when/if I get to the point I’m reading the novels rather than using an audiobook, I’m going to hear Chandler’s voice in my head. He is the voice of Joe Pickett for me.
At the end of the day, most of the “White Hat” guys really were “Black Hats.” The suspected “Black Hats” mostly wore a dirty gray. And almost everyone was just trying to do the right thing with limited knowledge (some of those with the most knowledge were deliberately taking illegal and immoral steps, but they’re the exception). There are a lot of moral questions to wade through in this novel and it’ll keep you thinking about it for a good amount of time.
In the midst of all that, Box managed to tell a pretty decent Crime Story, a compelling family story, and introduced us to a fascinating new character—while developing characters we’ve known and liked (or known and distrusted) already. It’s not going to be long at all before I’m fully addicted to these books if the next few are almost as good as this one.
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