Joe Pickett is back, ladies and gentlemen, for his 17th outing and this time around it’s very personal indeed as one Dallas Cates returns to wreak vengeance on Joe and his family. Dallas Cates – you may remember, if you read Endangered, the 15th Pickett novel – was a rodeo star who picked up with Joe’s adopted daughter April, only for April to wind up half dead in a ditch; in the ensuing carnage that time around, just about half of Dallas’ family were wiped out (admittedly in the conduct of nefarious deeds), and his evil old momma was rendered a paraplegic. So now Dallas is back and Joe being Joe, well he can sympathise with why Dallas feels the way he does – but Dallas is not one of those people to spend too long being grateful for understanding.
The novel opens with Joe in a low flying plane looking for Dave Farkus (another character who has dotted in and out of the last dozen or so books, something of a galoot but, thanks to Box’s deftness of touch, never a two dimensional buffoon) who has disappeared whilst out hunting. A groovy bit of software (you always get the sense Box is eagle-eyed when it comes to reading the news and absorbing everything from political shifts to technological advances that can then be repurposed in a variety of ways in his books – there are examples of this throughout Vicious Circle) shows what looks like a murder and before you know it Joe and the local constabulary are on Cates’ trail – and Cates makes it easy for them. Or does he?
There’s no extraneous meat this time around – although all the peripheral characters you’ve come to expect (Nate, of course, Marybeth, the kids, Dulcie Schalk, even Missy) make an appearance. Box is canny enough to shunt each of his character’s lives on by an inch or two and then crack on with the business of the book, which is a revenge fable about as old as the crime narrative itself. 17 books in, you’d have thought there are only so many twists to the form Box can deliver but, again, here there are enough red herrings, wrong turns and just plain old surprises to keep even the hoariest crime fanatic turning those pages (we read this book across the course of a single evening – which is one sure way of answering the question, does this page turner do what it set out to?). Did we say he’s good at shunting his characters lives on an inch or two? He’s also pretty damn great at forecasting too, with brief scenes centring on the new Governor (who we know is going to cause some headaches in the future) and a fellow Game Warden who may or may not be putting up Joe and his family next time around suggesting where we might find our crew next.
It is the tangled web of the novel itself, though, that delivers that which needs to be delivered: with Cates and his crew disposing of anyone who might do the necessary maths, a hoodied meth head wreaking all manner of bloody murder and a malevolent paraplegic somehow or other manipulating various people to do her bidding (not to mention corrupt police officers, rogue poachers, unscrupulous bankers and celebrity lawyers), Joe, his family and (eventually) Nate are working overtime to avert mayhem. And Box does all of this whilst still bringing rural Wyoming to life in a way that recalls Ron Rash or Daniel Woodrell. Not too shabby.
Any Cop?: If you’ve been reading Box’s Pickett novels up to this point, know that Vicious Circle is a stellar effort, a return to form after what we felt was something of a misfire in the shape of Off the Grid.