“Doesn’t quite reach the heights” – Dark Sky by CJ Box

The latest Joe Pickett novel (21 in the series, if you can believe it) comes at an auspicious time for Box. Although plans to turn Pickett himself into a TV show appear to have fallen through (for now), a high profile adaptation of his book, The Highway, is currently gracing Disney+ (as Big Sky) and it’s gathering enough fair reviews, it seems (including, as you might expect, positive comments from Stephen King), to warrant a season 2.

Dark Sky finds our perennial hero, game warden Joe Pickett, roped in to helping Silicon Valley billionaire Steve Price (known as Steve2 by his many followers) on an elk hunt. It isn’t Joe’s bag and he’d rather be anywhere but – but the local Governor has said his job (his whole department in fact) is on the line and so he has no choice. Which means Joe and a motley group that includes an additional guide and Steve2’s PA head off into the mountains to experience “nature!” (as Steve2 yells the moment he steps off his private plane). Of course, mice and men being what they are, it isn’t long before a dastardly plan comes to light and Joe and his billionaire tech mogul are on the run through a dark, cold forest at night pursued by the kind of old-time fury Joe would once have described as medieval. When it comes to the actual leveraging and ratcheting up of tension, Box is a grand master. No question. #There is much to enjoy in Dark Sky if you’ve followed Pickett up to this point.

However. Just as with the 16th Joe Pickett novel, Off the Grid (which featured, if you’ll remember, somewhat cartoonish cartoon jihadis), there are a couple of elements to Dark Sky which don’t entirely ring true and somewhat let the experience down. The first thing that lets Dark Sky down are the baddies: they are a family, Earl Thomas and his two sons, Kirby and Brad. Earl is a kind of mountain man who earns his living showing tourists round the mountains; his boys Brad and Kirby are as different as chalk and cheese – Brad, ox-like, dumb, built like the proverbial brick shithouse, and Kirby, sly, sharp, keeps his own counsel, likes to play with knives. Earl Thomas’ daughter Sophia took her life after being bullied online. He holds Steve2 responsible and so decides to exact a terrible punishment. There is an element of contrivance in terms of getting all of the parties in one place that the book never quite shakes off.

The second element that gave me pause was as a result of one of the subplots. Joe’s buddy Nate (who we know by now is a former special ops dude who is these days forging a career as a master falconer) has a run-in with a dodgy group who are looking to harvest nests and sell eggs to the Saudis. The dodgy dudes are antifa. Or political activists who fly the antifa flag. They are also scumbags given to dispatching animals without a by your leave. I’m not saying that everyone involved with the anti fascist movement in the US is a saint but pitching them as villains in a novel tends to mean you are on a certain side of the fence. It may be that people involved in anti-right protests commit acts of violence but whether they are provoked or not is another question. Using an antifa affiliation makes me as a reader feel uneasy. I can hear Trump in my head defending white nationalists saying there are some very fine people on both sides. I don’t know (and don’t really need to know) how Box votes – and some of his tweets indicate he’s been critical of Trump – so I genuinely don’t really know what to make of the antifa references – beyond the fact that they make me, as I’ve said, somewhat uneasy. If I’m looking at America right now, antifa are not the problem and crowbarring them in here feels a little like laziness.

It’s also worth saying that Dark Sky is the first ‘post’ pandemic Joe Pickett novel. Which isn’t to say that the last Joe Pickett novel was a pandemic novel and more that Box obviously feels he can’t not refer to it – but you get the sense the book was in tact and probably on its way to the printer when a handful of sentences were added to make the book feel timely and appropriate. The issue (if there is an issue) is that Dark Sky refers to the pandemic as if it’s historic rather than live – and as we write it’s not historic yet. But then maybe just maybe in the wilds of Wyoming it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it was elsewhere. Either way, it still feels like a slight gamble if – a year from now, or two years from now – we’re still dealing with variants and deaths and lockdowns.

These things aside, however, as the plot moves into high gear, and as the cat and mouse game hopscotches about the (as always) beautifully rendered Wyoming woodland, you will still inevitably find yourself tearing through the pages. What’s more, the way in which the book closes, leaving one subplot in the air, offers the promise of a Nate-centred sequel (in which, hopefully, Box resolves some of his antifa ambiguities).

Any Cop?: CJ Box’ ongoing Joe Pickett series remains one of our annual pleasures. We’d say this one doesn’t quite reach the heights of his best but it still provides enough entertainment per page to keep us hungering for the next instalment.

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