C.J. Box has become a popular crime writer in the U.S., and having read his debut, Open Season, I can see why.
There’s something charming about crime fiction set in the American west – Wyoming, in Box’s case. I don’t mean the crimes are milder or the writing tamer. Far from it. It’s just that the land is so sweeping and beautiful, that when a good writer brings it to life, when the reader ends up breathing the same sharp air as the characters, it’s hard to feel too noir-y. It’s not the same vibe as an urban hardboiled or an international espionage romp.
We’re in good hands with Box, who allows us to feel as though we know the territory like a native. His character, Joe Picket, is a game warden – an elite group, Box makes clear, despite his measly $26,000 annual salary. With a wife, two kids and a third on the way, Picket is struggling to make ends meet.
But he’s living his dream of working outdoors, protecting animals against poachers and helping maintain the natural landscape. And, although he’s a lousy shot, he knows his guns. He knows the pow-whop sound of a bullet hitting meat. It’s that sound, carried over a distance, that opens the book.
Box keeps the narrative going without getting all preachy. Sure, there are some endangered critters and a greedy oil-services company, and a deranged gun-lovin’ cowboy. But Box is a local; he knows the difference between rural Wyoming culture and lazy stereotypes. He has some fun with bleeding-heart out-of-towners – not too much, just a little edge. It’s a balanced judgment that gives the work authenticity.
Most of all, Open Season is just a fun read, and Joe Picket’s a terrific character. Again, Box knows how to paint his hero as an honest guy, a little befuddled by the corruption and stupidity around him, without making him either a clown or a goody-two-shoes. Picket comes out of this story as a guy you enjoy rooting for, and you believe in him when he needs to show some cowboy grit of his own.