Some things: the news; that Kiefer Sutherland show, 24; credulity. Let’s talk about these a little before we get to the 16th Joe Pickett outing, shall we? Like a lot of writers, CJ Box obviously pays close attention to the news. You get the sense he knows what is going on (as much as anyone can know what is going on) in the world. He’s an American with a passport, which probably places him in the top 1% of something or other. He looks about him and he attempts to work the world at large into his largely Wyoming-based narratives. He warrants credit for this. Meanwhile: 24. Forgive me for stating the obvious (it’s what I’m good at), but originally each season of 24 ran for 24 episodes of credulity straining real time. In order to ensure each hour had enough in the way of intrigue, small side plots involving Jack Bauer’s daughter were often introduced to ensure tension and drama were maintained. One memorable episode climaxed with Bauer’s daughter embracing that most Shakespearian of stage directions to exit stage left pursued by bear. The format of the show had a tendency to bend its characters out of shape, with circumstance defining character rather than vice versa. We’ll return to credulity shortly (and tie all these things up with nice bow).
So: Off the Grid. We know that you are reading this review online so we presume that you are familiar with what the phrase means. In the novel, to begin with, it refers to Nate Romanowski, former Special Ops man, errant hero sort and friend of Game Warden Joe Pickett, living without any kind of phone, internet connection, wifi etc. He is approached by some shady Government men and persuaded to take a trip to Wyoming’s Red Desert (“some of the roughest and most inhospitable terrain [Nate]’d ever encountered…) in order to find out what a young man named Muhammed Ibraaheem (29 years old, oldest son of an ambassador to the US, possible terrorist) is doing out there – and in return the shady Government men promise to destroy all Nate-related records (Nate having a thick old file of previous ear-ripping nefarious activity, from some perspectives). Meanwhile Joe Pickett, everybody’s favourite Gary Cooper style good guy, is temporarily diverted from the trail of a killer bear (I told you there would be a bear) by Governor Rulon (a character who has over the course of the last half dozen books come to figure a little like the Richard O’Hara character from The Simpsons – you know the one I mean, rich Texan oil man, always firing his guns in the air – not that Rulon is a rich Texan oil man, but he has that slightly wayward yeehah quality all the same) – to head to the Red Desert in order to see what his mate Nate is up to. Meanwhile – and I want you to feel every torturous incline of those italics – Joe’s daughter Sheridan is persuaded by her activist housemate to go camping for the weekend to somewhere so secret she can’t possibly divulge much in the way of information beyond the fact that they will be camping (but that we the reader know means Sheridan is somehow or other going to get tangled up in what her dad and Nate are going to be getting tangled up in).
Now, we know this is crime and bestselling crime at that so we’d be persuaded to forgive some of this. What is fiction for but to stretch credulity until it shrieks like the spout of a pinched balloon? Most things fall to pieces the instant you start to ask questions like, yes, but would that really happen? Would they really say that? Really? Unfortunately, there is a larger problem with Off the Grid and that comes down to understanding. The enemy on this occasion (or one of the enemies, Box is always canny enough to muddy the waters with multiple foes) are jihadis. Yes, the Islamic fundamentalist has made it all the way to the Red Desert in Wyoming. I’m sure none of us need reminding that it can sometimes feel like we are living in a fairly dangerous old time. But what is dangerous is to attempt to reduce perceived enemies to the other. “The other” isn’t like us. “The other” can be hated. This is the kind of reductive argument that sees all Muslims branded terrorists in some quarters. In Off the Grid, a terrorist attack is narrowly diverted and then the bad guys return to the scene of the crime for no other reason than to engage in a stand-off that makes no sense. Any strategist – hell, any fool – would make an alternate plan when viewing Plan A go south. But Box sets up a final stand-off in the opening pages of the book in a dream Nate has (a dream later shared – ! – by Joe’s wife – Joe says to Nate, “You know how much stock I put in dreams and your other woo-woo crap, right?” and the readers en masse nod their heads and say, about as much stock as we put in a narrative dictated by a contrivance). As the enemy approaches, Joe thinks,
“…of the men driving [the trucks] and in the back. He wondered who they really were and what they must be thinking about. They must have loved ones at home somewhere, he thought. They, like Joe, must have families waiting for them. They were human beings with dreams and ambitions and they loved their god and their mission.”
This is as far as Box gets in attempting to understand “the other” and it feels like a massive missed opportunity because in the past Box has been so good at grasping the nettle, at muddying the perspectives, at complicating issues and delivering thorny ethical dilemmas that have the reader genuinely asking themselves what they think about a given situation. There is a skein of Off the Grid exploring Edward Snowden territory and it is good. But it is let down by the cartoon jihadis. Compared to this, the Libyans in Back to the Future are as robust as Jason Burke’s The New Threat from Islamic Militancy (a book CJ Box should’ve read before he embarked on this). It’s good that CJ Box reads the news and thinks about the world in a way that drives his narratives; it’s bad that at times his narratives resemble the less believable aspects of 24; and it’s sad that in stretching credulity beyond breaking point in this particular outing, he veers into territory that has got Homeland into trouble.
Any Cop?: Colour us disappointed. The first out and out misfire in the CJ Box canon.