Kinsey Millhone. Hamish Macbeth. Stephanie Plum. Dave Robicheaux. Bennie Rosato. Rumpole of the Bailey.
All are ﬁctional detectives whom fans savor, whether the heroes happen to be detecting in the ﬁrst, ﬁfth or 23rd installment of a given series. (No lie: There are currently 23 Hamish Macbeth novels in the Scottish series by M.C. Beaton, three more than Sue Grafton’s Millhone, who has thus far solved her alphabetic way through the letter T.) All mysteries pretty well share the same plot: dead body, multiple suspects, rising danger. Within these conﬁnes of the genre, what makes some detectives remain not only fresh, but refreshing, book after book?
In Joe Pickett, outdoor enthusiast C.J. Box may have hit upon the right mix of character, locale and profession. In Blood Trail, the eighth novel of the series, the erstwhile game warden—currently suspended and acting as a special assistant to the governor—is on the track of a serial killer who is picking off game hunters in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, threatening not only lives, but a multimillion-dollar tourism industry as well. Pickett embodies many elements shared by other successful series detectives. He holds a job that, while allowing him a reasonable excuse to solve crimes, is at the same time unusual enough to be interesting in and of itself: its methods, tools, bureaucracy and (often petty) internecine conﬂicts. The job is practiced in a richly evoked locale, accurately presented with the style of a consummate travel writer. And the recurring characters who surround the detective—whether as comic relief or long-term nemeses—are sharply drawn and evolve from book to book.
Consider Box’s description of Joe Pickett’s ofﬁce, which is, like that of any other game warden, his pickup truck: “He’d been living in it for the past month, and it showed. The carpeting on the ﬂoorboards showed mud from the clay draws and arroyos near Lusk, the Little Snake River bottomland of Baggs, the desert of Rawlins, the Wind River foothills out of Pinedale. There was a gritty covering of dust on his dashboard and over his instruments. The console was packed with maps, notes, citation books. The skinny space behind his seat was crammed with jackets and coats for every weather possibility, as well as his personal shotgun.... The large padlocked metal box in the bed of the vehicle held evidence kits, survival gear, necropsy kits, heavy winter clothing, tools, spare radios, a tent and a sleeping bag. Single cab pickups for game wardens with all this gear was proof that whoever it was in the department who purchased the vehicles had never been out in the ﬁeld.”
Pickett, unlike his Machiavellian former boss, Randy Pope, is at home in the ﬁeld, much like his creator. Often photographed in a black cowboy hat, Box—who goes by Chuck—bares a passing resemblance to country singer Garth Brooks and is a former ranch worker and small-town journalist. Like his game warden, he also has worked intimately with state government, as the operator of a marketing ﬁrm business that coordinates international travel with the state travel departments of Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana and Idaho. Earlier this month, the real Wyoming governor, Dave Freudenthal, gave Box a “Big Wyo” tourism award for his work with the ﬁrm. More to the point, Box’s unusual résumé allows him to combine Hemingwayesque wilderness writing with an insider’s eye of statehouse politics and institutional spin doctoring.
In Blood Trail, the spin doctoring is as furious as the action. An anti-hunting guru, media darling Klamath Moore, capitalizes on the gruesome murders of hunters to spread his political message. Meanwhile, the state imports an international mercenary “master tracker” to ﬁnd the killer, with predictably disastrous results. It is once again up to Pickett to head for the mountains and clean up the mess. As in Hemingway’s best hunting and ﬁshing narratives, the brutality of the natural world is best understood in contrast to the brutality of the so-called civilized world. In a passage that could have been written by Papa himself, for example, Box describes Pickett’s philosophy on the handling of a fresh kill: “He valued those who shot well and took care of their game properly. This involved ﬁeld dressing the downed animal quickly and cleanly, and cooling the meat by placing lengths of wood inside the body cavity to open it up to the crisp fall air. Back limbs were hung by the legs from a tree branch or game pole. The game carcass was then skinned to accelerate cooling, and washed down to clean it of hair and dirt. The head was often removed as well as the legs past their joints. It was respectful of the animal and the tradition of hunting to take care of the kill this way.”
Of course, in this case, the prepared kill Pickett discovers is human. His efforts to link the seemingly random victims uncovers—as mystery aﬁcionados know it will—unsavory past acts and conspiracies. The action moves ever more quickly through the Rockies toward a ﬁnal confrontation, advancing the lives of familiar Box characters while introducing new ones.
“A thriller is like a shark,” Box once explained. “It needs to always be moving forward. If it stops, it dies.”
Joe Pickett seems poised to move forward for some time to come.
I love this poem!
OMG! I would love to see this! Let us all know what we can do…
What should happen over the summer...Someone needs to buy Scarlett a pair of cute ballet…
"his soul patch slides off of his face and splashes in his mimosa." made me…
Dark; Deep; Brooding;Brilliant; A Measure of The Sin! A tale of how many decide that…