Trophy Hunt is the fourth book in CJ Box’s Joe Pickett series, the May book if, like me, you’re reading each edition as it’s published in the UK as part of Corvus’ 12 month plan to re-educate the crime loving readers of the British Isles to the as yet mostly undiscovered Box – and whatever doubts I may have expressed last time around (in the Winterkill review) as to whether Box had the chops to keep this series going without retreading similar ground are amply put paid to in what is in some respects quite a game changer.
I was going to say ‘Things kick off this time with Joe and his girls finding a mutilated moose up in the woods’ but this isn’t entirely true. Trophy Hunt begins with an italicised prologue in which Joe’s eldest daughter Sheridan relates a dream she has in which clouds roll down over the top of the Bighorn Mountains:
Black spoors of smoke snaked down in tendrils from the cloud, dropping into the trees. In moments, the smoke became ground-hugging mist that coursed through the treetrunks like soundless, rushing water.
This is the first taste that the book offers (and indeed this series of books has offered) of a world beyond this world (the occult, spiritual world that David Peace, for example, is so fond of interposing as a backdrop to some of his novels, although Box and Peace are quite different in many ways). Nate Romanowski, Pickett’s friend with a shady past who we met in Winterkill, is back and, as ever, his perspective on things is decidedly off kilter as well (a bear is missing for much of Trophy Hunt, and Nate’s own take on the bear and the various murders Pickett is involved with, create an out of step sense of irresolution that I can imagine fans of more prosaic crime writing won’t particularly warm to). This irresolution, the sense that not all questions will or even can be answered, is the kind of thing that elevates crime writing in this reader’s book, however, from the standard to the stand-out.
But what of the crime at the heart of the book? Well, to begin with, as I said, Joe and his girls find a mutilated moose that has had various strips and skin and genitals surgically removed and comes doused in a chemical that stops predation from other animals. It takes the mutilation of cattle to get the local law enforcement (in the shape of the quietly corrupt Sheriff Barnum, who continues to bump skulls with Pickett) involved, but when two people from two different states wind up murdered on the same night in the same way as the cattle, Barnum teams up with the FBI agent who was so pissed off with Pickett at the climax of Winterkill (when, admittedly, Joe behaved in the most un-Joe Pickett-like way) and they each seem as committed to bringing Joe down as finding the killer or killers.
A few observations on things there are to like about Trophy Hunt, in particular, of all the Joe Pickett novels so far:
1) Like a lot of writers who flirt with the crime genre and enjoy subverting expectations (I’m thinking Denis Johnson, Daniel Woodrell, the Cormac McCarthy of No Country for Old Men), Trophy Hunt has a set-up that allows a certain amount of the action to take place off-camera (the out of state murder is investigated by another policeman who we only hear from periodically over the telephone, which gives the case of good sense of being bigger than any one man).
2) Box is, I think, alone (and I say this in the knowledge that there is bound to be someone I’m not aware of who has done this kind of thing for a bajillion years) in creating a hero who is a devoted family man. I’ve commented on this previously in reviews of the earlier Joe Pickett books but, as the novels proceed and Joe is forced to balance trying to provide for his family (and not doing an altogether great job at it) with his ingrained moral compass that drives him to see a job through and to make sure all t’s are crossed and i’s dotted, it makes for a compelling book to book thread that sets the series apart.
3) Last but not least – and picking up that sense of indeterminacy so prevalent in this novel – it’s very encouraging that, although Pickett feels the need to attempt to pin down all the various strands and make a narrative of what he’s going through only, his failure to do so makes both him and the novels themselves more interesting than they would be if Box sought to tie up all strands at the end of each book.
Trophy Hunt puts us about a quarter of the way through the Pickett series (the 12th book has just been published in the States). It’s getting so I’m becoming used to my monthly Joe Pickett fix. One can only hope that Box is busy writing his little socks off so that Corvus can continue publishing a new Joe Pickett novel a month in 2012 as well…
Any Cop?: This feels like the first of the Joe Pickett novels that you couldn’t entirely read as a standalone novel (as with any series, it serves to read these things in order). It’s also the best, which leaves me to suggest that you should really start playing catch-up and soon!