Friday, December 14, 2007

C. J. Box

by Steven Williams

C. J. Box black and white photographC. J. Box, a popular American writer of outdoor mysteries, currently lives in the area around Cheyenne, Wyoming. He has seven published novels, all set in Wyoming, with another coming out in January 2008 and they have all been critically well received. His professional recognition includes winning the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, the Macavity Award, the Gumshoe Award, and the French Prix Calibre .38 award. He has also been a finalist for both an Edgar Award and a LA Times Book Prize. In 2007, Box was named Writer of the Year by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers association. Box is a native of Wyoming and so it is not too surprising that his work experiences include such things as ranch hand, surveying, fishing guide, and local newspaper reporter and editor. Also, not surprisingly, he is an enthusiastic outdoor sportsman having hunted, fished, hiked, ridden, and skied all over Wyoming and the American Mountain West.

Wyoming Game Wardens Association logoBox uses the recurring character Joe Pickett in his mysteries. Pickett is a hardworking, stubbornly honest but error-prone Wyoming game warden. He is happily married with two daughters. Like many westerners, he does not talk much but is a hard worker, always tries to do the right thing, and aware of his own flaws. Box chose to use a game warden for his recurring character for a series of mystery novels because their responsibilities cover almost every situation involving the outdoors and the rural new west. Since Box lives in Wyoming and enjoys an active outdoor life there, he likes to give the western environment a major role in all of his stories. This also gives him an advantage in writing mysteries because in the new west, there are all sorts of possible conflicts over the land: economic, ideological, historical, and even theological.

'Open Season' by C. J. Box front cover

Open Season (2001)
Box's first novel introduced his recurring character, Joe Pickett, who works as a Wyoming game warden. This is a story about greedy business interests and local corruption. The story begins with the discovery of the body of a well-known elk poacher, with whom Pickett has previously humiliatingly tangled. To complicate matters, the body turns up on Pickett's own wood pile and the man had apparently been on his way to delivery a sample of unidentified animal scat to someone. Investigation leads to the discovery of a conflict involving the effort to save an endangered species and a scheme to develop an oil pipeline. Soon, the bodies of two more elk hunters turn up, also killed under suspicious circumstances. As Pickett investigates, the threat spreads, endangering his job and eventually even his family.

'Savage Run' by C. J. Box front cover
Savage Run (2002)
The second Joe Pickett mystery begins with Pickett being called to a crime scene where an exploding cow kills an infamous eco-radical. The man and his new bride had been spiking trees. The bizarre death peaks Pickett's interest, especially when the cow's owner seems to not have any questions even though this happened on his land and killed several other of his animals. The puzzle becomes even deeper when Pickett's wife begins receiving telephone calls from an old boyfriend who just happens to be the supposedly dead eco-radical. Then the bodies start to pile up as other environmental activists begin turning up dead in strange accidents, including one of Pickett's oldest friends. It turns that there are two hit men murdering the environmentalists and the trail leads back to a group of millionaire ranchers out for revenge on the environmentalists.

'Winterkill' by C. J. Box front cover
Winterkill (2003)
This is Box's third Joe Picket outdoor mystery. Suspicion for the murder of a much-hated forest service supervisor immediately focuses on events surrounding the manic slaughter of a herd of elk. Initially, the suspected killer seems to be a local falconer with connections to a local survivalist group living out in some nearby wilderness public lands. Unfortunately for Pickett, the killing of the supervisor draws in a special FBI investigative team determined to use the killing as an excuse to forcefully break up the survivalist presence. The situation becomes more complicated as well as personal for Pickett when his foster daughter is kidnapped by her birth mother who happens to be a member of the survivalist group. Fortunately for Picket, his investigation reveals the real killer of the forest service supervisor and the accused falconer is freed from jail. Luckily for Pickett, the now freed man may be able to help Picket rescue his foster daughter and her troubled mother.

'Trophy Hunt' by C. J. Box front cover
Trophy Hunt (2004)
Box's fourth Joe Pickett mystery brings in a modern-day Jack the Ripper to Pickett's Wyoming home area. While fly-fishing with his daughters, Pickett discovers the body of a moose mutilated in a distinctive, vicious way. The discovery of the similar mutilation deaths of a small herd of cattle and then the bodies of two men prompt the forming of a task force to investigate. Pickett becomes part of investigating team which includes a corrupt local sheriff who is inclined to take to take the easy way out by blaming the killings on bear attacks. Pickett suspects that the precision of the mutilations indicates a human cause and his investigation leads to an amateur cattle mutilation expert in the area. The mutilation expert exudes creepy vibes but Pickett pursues every lead, including those that seem to point to aliens as the cause. It turns out that Pickett is actually pursuing a modern-day killer.

'Out of Range' by C. J. Box front cover

Out of Range (2005)
This is the fifth Joe Pickett outdoor mystery by C. J. Box. Pickett's mother-in-law is getting married to a big local rancher and he has become a little caught up in events when he receives word that a fellow game warden and good friend has committed suicide. Picket is assigned to take on the dead man's district. Unfortunately, the district he takes over happens to be around Jackson and this area is both a major center of environmental extremist activity and an elite playground for the rich and powerful. Picket copes with the new pressures but also finds time to think about his friend's death and realizes that the pressures he is feeling might explain it. In the end, Pickett has to muddle through family problems, pressures from developers, and animal rights protesters while figuring out how to keep these troubles from taking over his life.

'In Plain Sight' by C. J. Box front coverIn Plain Sight (2006)
Box's sixth Joe Pickett mystery finds Pickett investigating the odd disappearance of a wealthy ranch owner. The contest between her two sons over control of her assets distracts almost everyone from the disappearance itself, but Pickett pursues his investigation suspecting the involvement of one of the missing woman's sons. As Pickett digs into the suspicious disappearance, he attracts the attention of a newly arrived stranger. This man was hired by one of the missing woman's sons to help manager affairs and Pickett is attacked and nearly beaten to death by this man. It turns out the violent stranger is an ex-con and the brother of a dead man who he holds Pickett responsible for killing. There follows a series of threatening messages and attempts to sabotage Pickett's career, all part of this very personal grudge. Meanwhile, Pickett's self-serving boss calls him off of the case of the missing woman. In direct violation of his instructions, Pickett persists in his investigation, in the end paying for this decision with his job.

'Free Fire' by C. J. Box front coverFree Fire (2006)
This seventh Joe Pickett mystery is set in Yellowstone National Park. Pickett, having recently been fired from his job, begins working on his father-in-law's ranch. Out of the blue he receives a call from the governor's office and is asked investigate a case involving the murder of four campers in Yellowstone. The man who committed the murders turned himself into the nearest ranger station but the location of the murders makes the case problematic what with overlapping jurisdictions, no resident population, and such. This quirk of the law sets the killer free and the angry and frustrated governor asks Pickett to investigate the murders with the added carrot that he will get his game warden job back if he takes the case. Pickett leaps at the opportunity but soon finds things much more complicated than he originally thought they would be. Apparently the murderer has been involved in some sort of highly lucrative illegal activity in Yellowstone. As Picket and his partner dig further into the case, they discover that the key to the murders is in the Yellowstone terrain itself in the form of competition for bio-mining rights in the hot springs there.

'Blue Heaven' by C. J. Box front coverBlue Heaven (January, 2008)
The next anticipated novel by C. J. Box has been described as a thriller that spans a period of just over forty-eight hours. A twelve-year old girl and her younger brother have fled into the woods of North Idaho after witnessing a murder. In pursuit are the four killers they saw. These men are ex-cops and the children's disappearance becomes a perfect cover for them when they offer their services to the local sheriff in leading a search for the missing kids. There one hope is local rancher in whose barn the children take refuge. He is a man who needs allies to protect the children and their mother but who has no one to turn to. He is an old-timer in the local community but most of his neighbors have sold out to developers and the area is now populated almost totally by strangers without any links to the sort of community that would have provided some aid in the past. A retired California detective appears on the scene investigating the original San Diego robbery that is cause behind the murder by the four ex-cops, complicating things.

C. J. Box circa Fall 2007 black and white photographBlood Trail (May, 2008)
C. J. Box's eighth Joe Pickett novel, Blood Trail, will be published by Penguin Putnam in May, 2008. In this story, Pickett has become a special agent reporting directly to the governor. Pickett ends up getting some help from his friend, Nate Romanowski, in the investigation of the suspicious deaths of some elk hunters. Elk in gunsight color photographIt is elk season and it appears that someone is actually hunting elk hunters. Complicating things is the presence in town of a notorious anti-hunting activist and his followers. Pickett finds himself caught between people on both sides of the issue at the same time he is trying to solve a string of murders.

Sunrise over the Teton Mountains, Wyoming color photograph

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C. J. Box, a master of the outdoor mystery by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting Steven Williams through Bookmarc's BookmarcsOnline.

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