Is there any feeling finer than getting your hands on a new book by an author you like? Yes, there is. It’s getting your hands on a new book by an author you like that you didn’t know was coming. I don’t know about you but I tend to keep my eyes on the authors I like, checking out Amazon or author websites and keeping tabs on forthcoming books. The fact that I do this and can still be surprised is wonderful to me. Even acting all Edward Snowden and surveilling the world, things can still sneak up on you unannounced. Which is splendid. What’s more – and recognising that books by authors we like can still sneak up upon us and that the feeling is good – such situations can also give rise to bad books, to let downs, to disappointments, to books that authors may want to sneak under the radar (the whole ‘unannounced’ aspect being used to disguise the fact that the author in question knows he’s delivering a dog but hey, it’s a dog dressed up in a surprise party hat). Thankfully – yay! – CJ Box’s Stone Cold, his fourteenth novel in the Joe Pickett series, is a series high.
Now, before we jump in and talk about such things as plot and execution, we have to agree that – by this point in the series – we can be relatively assured that if you’ve read this far in the review, you’re a fan of CJ Box and that you’ve read at least some of the previous novels. You’ll be familiar with Joe, game warden, family man, husband to Marybeth, father to two daughters (who have, of course, grown up over the course of the books) and guardian to a somewhat wayward teenage girl. You’ll also be aware of his moral rectitude, that fact he is a Gary Cooper in a world of corporations and corruption, his unerring ability to find himself up over his hat in the kind of trouble that people rarely walk out of, his clumsy, comedic way of wandering, Columbo-like, with a curious mixture of belligerence and hunch, the engine that usually powers proceedings. And, pertinently, you’ll be aware of his relationship with Nate Romanowski, the pragmatic former CIA man with the kind of skills Joe occasionally finds himself having to draw on (even as the skills and techniques Nate employs fills him with doubt and disturbing questions). One of the great joys of the Pickett books is the way in which characters recur, or appear vaguely in the background only to have their parts grow as the books proceed (the pleasures much the same as those experienced in the watching of a great TV show, glutting on a DVD boxset) and the way in which Joe’s own character both changes and stays the same.
And so to Stone Cold: we first find ourselves in the company of Nate (who regular readers will know from the last book, Breaking Point, is in a strange place, dealing with the death of the girl he liked and trying to find a good reason for being the person he is) who is scoping out a large rural retreat in Montana with the aim, it turns out, of performing an assassination. This assassination, perhaps not unexpectedly, becomes tied up with a job Pickett is asked (by Governor Rulon, the – also somewhat wayward – head of the state who likes Pickett and his ability to find the sweet spot of any trouble) to undertake – travelling to a place called Medicine Wheel County in Wyoming in order to gently investigate an extremely rich guy called Wolfgang Templeton who used to be a Wall Street high flyer before cashing in his chips to (apparently) establish some kind of off the books assassination business that allows the wildly rich to off other wildly rich types who are above the law. As you do. (It’s worth adding at this point that Box is good at establishing slightly muddy waters for his ostensible villains to operate in – this isn’t any old assassination service – this is an assassination service that only does away with people who are very bad indeed – hence the involvement of – you’ve guessed right! – Nate Romanowski.)
If Box were a James Patterson, the above would be more than enough to fuel a 300 page novel – but Box is far better than Patterson (Box is an Elmore Leonard, albeit an Elmore Leonard cut from a slightly different cloth – Box is far less interested in cool than Leonard, and far more interested in questions as to whether it is possible for a man to be good in a the kind of world we all live in): that is why we have Pickett linking up with another game warden in the area, compassionately trying to understand that man’s situation even as it becomes apparent that Templeton’s grip on the town, and the town’s reciprocal grip on Templeton, is creating an untenable and unsustainable situation (a conversation between Templeton and Romanewski towards the climax of the book throws this tension into harsh relief and, again, underscores Box’s real skill in creating intensely complex situations that are relayed with clarity and real intelligence).
Like a lot of crime novels, Box still sometimes feels the need to tie every bow (a second storyline centring on Joe’s daughter Sheridan could, this reader feels, have been left for the next novel – could have been resolved further down the line, rather than over the course of a short chapter at the end of the book) – and 14 books in we could agree amongst ourselves that some strands can be left and picked up later (Box has done it before, charting Nate’s past long before it finally caught up with him in Force of Nature). There are also a couple of things that stick out – three or four metaphors that mention England that had this reader wondering whether Box and his missus had been devouring Downton Abbey, a clumsy use of the word ‘serpentine’ as a verb (as in ‘he serpentines up the road’) – but these are niggles so tiny as to barely warrant a mention.
If you’re a fan, all you need to know is that this is another great CJ Box novel. If you’re a fan of intelligent crime, as we’ve said before, then we can’t recommend Box enough. His books tend to come laden with quotes from the kinds of writers you’d probably never read (Lee Childs etc) but that comes in part, I think, because the Lee Childs of this world would give anything to write as well as Box. Roll on book 15, we say (and, while we’re here, Mr Box? Maybe have a think about a book that doesn’t feature Joe but does feature Nate – it’s maybe time Nate has a book or two of his own…)
Any Cop?: You’re darn tooting.