‘All you are is a glugging thing’ – Open Season by CJ Box

It’s a hot day. You’re parched. After what feels like hours, you get a bottle of something in your meaty claw, some water, a coke, a beer, and you tip your head back and you glug. You’re so hot and so thirsty that you can’t seem to get your dirty throat open enough to admit the drink. Glug-glug-glug you go. For a time, you’re not even thinking. All you are is a glugging thing. That – the sentient glugging thing – is what reading Open Season, the first of CJ Box’s Joe Pickett books, will make you feel like.

Joe Pickett is a game warden in Twelve Sleep County, Wyoming. We first meet him as he tries to stop a poacher called Ote Keeley making off with animals out of season – only for one reason or another, Ote winds up with Joe’s gun and Joe is rendered something of a laughing stock. Leastways until Ote’s body winds up in Joe’s back garden, sprawled across the woodpile. What follows, as is sometimes the way of these things, is Joe getting dragged into something a little messier than the authorities would allow, with Joe trying to explain to himself why someone like Ote would wind up dead in his back yard. And (again as you might expect from a good thriller) there are twists and turns and revelations and shocks and, as I said, a real sense, as the book proceeds, that you can’t get the words in your eyes fast enough.

In some respects, Box is as accomplished a crime writer as George Pelecanos but there are enough interesting distinctions to make him the kind of writer you could push on Pelecanos fans. Pelecanos’ characters can be foolhardy or wrongheaded but they are always usually strong. Pelecanos does not tend to admit weakness in his leading men. Box is happy for a man to be frail, happy for a man to be perceived wrongly by those about him, happy for his hero to be a gentle family-oriented kind of guy. It’s this that helps give the dramatic moments a big push (when Pickett says to one of the bad guys, ‘things are going to get real Western around here’, you sit up and pay attention because you know he doesn’t make threats lightly). The narratorial line is also shared by Pickett’s eldest daughter Sheridan and this device allows a terrific blind to be raised as she is terrorised by someone her Dad knows, whose face she recognises, but whose name evades her and the reader. When the wheels start to come off the cart, it gets so you could read between splayed fingers, if you were that way inclined (Box’s bastards are real bastards). Another interesting distinction from Pelecanos – where Pelecanos can sometimes be a little too sentimental for his own good, because Box is softer in some other respects, it allows him to drop the sentiment like a knife when it’s called for (a character is shot towards the end of the book and you think, whoa, didn’t see that coming – a la the shooting of Kima in The Wire).

Corvus are issuing a Joe Pickett novel every month in 2011, the kind of thing that puts off as many readers as it turns on I wouldn’t wonder, but those of you who dabble with Box – particularly those of you who like intelligent crime novels – are in for a solid treat. Certainly, having made my way through the first book at speed, I can’t wait to jump knee deep in Savage Run, the second book, to see what Box has Pickett get up to next.

Any Cop?:  A real shot out of the blue, CJ Box is a find. Well worth hunting down and checking out.

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