Joe Pickett is back and once more, as a preamble to a review, we feel the need to justify, to qualify, to explain. Yes, CJ Box is a crime writer admired by the likes of Lee Child, which means by implication that here is a writer that Lee Child and various publishing houses think will be liked by fans of Lee Child. Which, in some minds, will place Box firmly within the camp of writers we think write purely for money. ‘Here is the latest bestseller,’ we imagine them telling their agents and publishing houses, as their respective agents and publishing houses get dollar signs where their eyes used to be. Meanwhile, serious readers the world over – serious readers who, perhaps, may dabble from time to time with crime (because, after all, David Peace has written crime, James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard are both crime and both interesting, Daniel Woodrell and Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson have all tried their hands successfully at the genre – only an idiot would dismiss it out of hand) – flick a switch in their hands and register a sense, perhaps, that Box is commercial and therefore not interesting. Which is, as we have said a good few times before, a great shame (a great shame that I’m sure Box is not losing too much sleep about, the guy is in the bestselling bracket after all) – but in addition to the books he sells, he warrants more critical attention that a cover credit from Lee Child gives him credit for. So, we say with sadness, it may be that Box is ignored by the snobs but (and I say this knowing it’s the last recourse of the wounded): it’s they who are missing out, not us.
The events of Breaking Point – which centre upon game warden, Joe Pickett (which itself raises another question regarding those people who turn up their nose at genre fiction’s use of recurring characters but who invest time and intellectual engagement in TV shows like The Sopranos) – are based on a true story: Mike & Chantelle Sackett’s battle with the Environmental Protection Agency which sort to confiscate their land and tie them up in court battles they could not win. Box shifts the action to his native Wyoming and reconfigures their landmark legal case to centre upon the figure of Butch Roberson, a local landowner with a desire to build a retirement home. The novel opens with him on the run, having apparently slaughtered a pair of G-men who came to turf him off his own land. Knowing the guy, Joe is on hand to try to find out the truth and also throw a few rocks in the path of a singular EPA leader and a handful of couldn’t care less FBI men who just want to bring in Butch, dead or alive. The narrative is rich, in the sense that Pickett is a fully fleshed out character with a rich home life (this has always been one of the strengths of the Pickett novels – he is not an everyman, he is just a man, an occasionally weak, scattershot, albeit principled, bungler, wanting to do the right thing even as he gets hit in the face time and again by his own metaphorical rake and his family life, the demands of his wife and his children add an interesting and unusual skein to the thriller format), and Box is adept at both wrongfooting the reader but also delivering plain facts in a way that doesn’t disappoint (throughout Breaking Point, Joe questions whether his friend could possibly be responsible for the murder – the answer is prosaic and sad and all the better for avoiding a dan-dan-dah style unveiling).
What’s more, just as earlier instalments of the Pickett series sought to mix things up and change the dynamic of the books, so Breaking Point sees Pickett saying goodbye to his job once and for all – the promise of an entirely new direction for the books pose by the climax. So we remain committed. Committed to the character of Joe Pickett and the books of CJ Box. And yah-boo-sucks to the naysayers.
Any Cop?: It may be that Box is read by the kinds of people who read Child and Patterson (both of whom are not a patch on Box) – but he should also be read by the people who dig Elmore Leonard and Daniel Woodrell and Ron Rash. Just so you know.