Shots Fired is the CJ Box equivalent of Don DeLillo’s The Angel Esmerelda, in that it collects stories from every point in Box’s career – is a collection of stories that have been published (for the most part, three of them have been written especially for this collection) across a span of years, often in hard to find places, packaged together now for dedicated fans.
Now, as regular readers of Bookmunch will know, we participated in the year long attempt to break Box in the UK in 2012, when a book by Box was issued every month – and that was enough to hook us. Box is a sturdy crime writer, can pitch a robust narrative, knows what it takes to fashion a page turner but (and this feels crucial somehow) isn’t afraid of the banal, the mundane, the everyday, his hero (more often than not) Joe Pickett, a working man with a rigorous ethical code, a man with a family, ardently in love with his family, dealing with the kinds of trouble you deal with when you have a family, as well as (of course) getting mixed up in all manner of worrisome trouble (I say worrisome trouble because something else Box is tremendously good at is creating situations that seem, from every angle you try to come at them, unresolvable – and half the fun of a good Box novel is seeing the way in which he manages to navigate choppy waters). He is also quite modern, in the sense that his heroes don’t always walk away, his villains are not always brought to justice, black and white is regularly interrogated and rejected in favour of ambivalent greys.
All of which serves as preamble, then, to the fact that… sorry CJ, we didn’t quite get along with Shots Fired. There are 10 stories here and, you know, they’re fine. We are firmly in ‘if you have a long journey, you know, you could do worse’ territory. There are four stories involving Joe Pickett and his falcon training black ops buddy Nate Romanowski. There are a half dozen more that allow Box to try different things out. So, for example, you have ‘The End of Jim and Ezra’ which is set in the Wind River Range in Wyoming in 1835. The Pickett stories feel a little weak as a result of the speed with which things are resolved (‘One-Car Bridge’, the book’s opener, and the Nate story, ‘The Master Falconer’, very much falls into this trap). What’s more, the tricks that Box employs over a novel – clues to the resolution of the larger mystery – stick out when they are picked up over the course of a short story (the reader quickly arriving at the point where, if a stray detail is mentioned, you know it will be for a reason – ‘Shots Fired: A Requiem for Ander Esti’ is a good example of that). There are stylistic choices that annoy (such as the unnecessary explanation in the title of ‘Le Sauvage Noble (The Noble Savage)’). Perhaps the worst thing about Shots Fired, though, is the harsh light it shines on Box’s writing. Over the course of a novel, Box has it in him to grip the reader by the lapels and drag him along. In a short story, perversely, when a narrative is displaying its mechanics too rudely, you start to notice the writing more – and you realise that Box is the kind of writer who can fashion a narrative and sculpt sentences that do what they need to. But they lack beauty.
Now that isn’t to say that Shots Fired is a misfire – there are stories here that demonstrate CJ Box’s ambition (‘Pronghorns of the Third Reich’ is a doozy, good title and good story, and ‘Every Day is a Good Day on the River’ has a lot going for it too). The broader point, though, is that short stories don’t seem, for the most part, to be a form that suits Box.
Any Cop?: In the introduction to the book, Box says that over the years a number of readers have requested these stories and so ‘here they are!’ If you’re among those readers, I’m sure you’ll get a kick out of this. For everyone else, might be worth downgrading your expectations ever so slightly.