The third Joe Pickett outing from CJ Box finds our (still slightly unlikely) game warden hero once caught up in intrigue in the Bighorn Mountains. ‘Beyond the rim to the west was Battle Mountain, separated from the Wolf Range by the Crazy Woman Creek, which flowed, eventually, into the Twelve Sleep River.’ The novel opens with a drunken federal employee called Lamar Gardiner gunning down more elk than he is legally supposed to. Joe tries to take him in – only to find himself handcuffed to his steering wheel and trying to give chase through the beginnings of a blizzard. But Lamar’s getaway proves his undoing. Joe eventually finds him:
‘…held to the trunk of the tree by two arrows that had gone completely through his chest and into the wood, pinning him upright against the tree. His chin rested on his chest, and Joe could see blood spreading down from his neck. His throat had been cut. The snow around the tree had been tramped by boots.’
A terrible storm engulfs Twelve Sleep County and Joe finds himself happily marooned at home with his family for Christmas (Joe is a big family man, itself quite unusual for crime fiction). When the snow clears, however, he is caught up in a manhunt, a manhunt that threatens to become a witch hunt thanks to the involvement of a federal task force led by a woman called Melinda Strickland (who quickly reveals herself to be a villain by quietly engineering the death of a dog she doesn’t like). Melinda Strickland is out to get those people who have made it their vocation to bring violence to federal employees, a small cabal of whom seem to have taken up residence in the mountains. The witch hunt runs parallel and eventually intersects with another problem: April, the young girl Joe and his wife adopted at the close of Open Season, now finds her errant mom is back on the scene and she wants what’s hers. And so Joe is on the case, trying to find the murderer (or murderers) of Lamar Gardiner, trying to protect his not quite yet adopted daughter, trying to keep the federal task force from enacting too much in the way of carnage in his beloved mountains.
Now. It may be that there is a problem with serial detective novels. There is a danger of things getting a little bit Hart to Hart (‘ooh, for some reason our hero finds himself caught up once again in the midst of a murder mystery in the rural idyll where crime normally never happens’). As Sheriff Barnum says towards the beginning of the novel, ‘why is it that every time someone gets murdered in my county, you’re right in the middle of it?’ As a device the serial crime novel allows the author to foreshadow events (we know, for example, that Barnum, who is a bit corrupt, and Pickett will come to blows at some point in the near future) and bring back characters (as he does here with April’s mom, as he no doubt will at some point with Stewie the environmentalist who may or may not have been disposed of at the end of Savage Run). Thankfully, though, Box is a tough writer who eschews the expected and has a way of patting your back and chucking your chin so you don’t worry too much about all of this because you’re too busy being propelled through a satisfying and compelling page turner.
Certainly by the climax of the book, which sees the fatality of someone close to Pickett’s heart and also witnesses Pickett stepping away from his usual no frills moral stance, you realise that – three books in – Box still has it in him to take you to places you didn’t think you’d get to. Is Winterkill the best of the series so far? It’s pretty damn close, let’s just say that…
Any Cop?: Pelecanos describes the book as ‘an unusual and intelligent thriller’ and we think George has got it nailed on. If you’re a fan of intelligent crime, the Joe Pickett series should be your first stop.