Winterkill is, quite simply, the novel I have been waiting for Wyoming mystery novelist C.J. Box to write.
His first two, Open Season and Savage Run, established his potential and garnered him critical acclaim and bestseller status – for good reason. Box has pretty much created a whole new sub-genre of murder mystery, with a Wyoming game warden as the detective and plots that turned on the American West’s land, resource and environmental issues that seldom get such balanced or sympathetic treatment as Box gives them.
Open Season, in addition to introducing us to game warden and reluctant detective Joe Pickett, explored the implications and unintended complications of the Endangered Species Act as its hero – and his family – became embroiled in a complicated set of plots and plans centering on concealing the survival of a species thought long extinct. Savage Run continued Pickett’s story with a tale of environmental extremists, asshole hobby ranchers, and an unhinged stock detective.
Both books are cracking good page-turners, the characters vivid and interesting, the plot lines refreshingly unhackneyed and inventive, the ruggedness and beauty of the Wyoming terrain Pickett patrols well evoked, though at times Box strays into what I can only describe as scenery porn.*
What makes them, and Box’s brand-new Winterkill truly memorable, though, is the texture, the background of the conflicts Box so skillfully sets up and executes and intensifies to the point of unbearability – a background handled, for the most part, with fairness and sensitivity, especially in the first two books. Ecoterrorists and Tom Horn wannabes both get their say and both get to be fully human even as they perform inhuman acts (environmental extremist and Saddlestring, Wyo. native Stewie Woods routinely spikes trees knowing he is creating the potential for working men he may have known since childhood to be maimed, even die on the job; stock detective Charlie Tibbs’ unhinged and single minded pursuit of Woods and Pickett through the eponymous canyon is like something out of a Hitchcock movie); concerns about unscrupulous timber harvesting practices and about the true nature of “magical and beautiful” wolves get equal play. Some minor characters, most notably Savage Run’s Britney Earthshare, do threaten to become caricatures, but even they get sympathetic treatment and are allowed, to a degree, to evolve.
These trends in Box’s fiction continue in Winterkill, which introduces yet another seemingly fanciful but all-too-plausible element to the ongoing saga of Joe Pickett and Saddlestring, Wyo. As winter sets in, the mountains above Saddlestring are invaded by a caravan of refugees from every “extremist” showdown with the federal government over the last 15 years, survivors of Waco, Ruby Ridge, the Montana Freemen, you name it.
And coincidentally, a ranking Forest Service Bureaucrat has just lost his mind, been caught poaching, and gotten himself murdered almost right under poor Joe’s nose!
But is it just a coincidence? USFS hotshot Melinda Strickland doesn’t think so.
And this is where the novel really gets interesting. While Open Season and Savage Run both feature somewhat sympathetic, or at least well-rounded villains with understandable flaws and comprehensible agendas, with Strickland Box has let his melodramatic instincts run away with him; she might as well be wearing a black hat and twirling a mustache. Box, though, goes her one better, making her a modern day White Witch straight out of C.S. Lewis, wrapped in blankets in the back of a sledge (OK, a snowcat), an annoying dog cuddled to her breast, viciously driving her dwarf minions (OK, other USFS bureaucrats) through the blinding snow and the towering drifts on her way to exact revenge!!
A scene of note: as plans to “go get” those outlaws on the mountain are laid, Strickland calls a press conference/public forum to justify her plans and her planned actions to anyone who cares to know. The scene rings as true as any I’ve ever read in modern literature, and is almost painfully funny as Saddlestring residents complain about having no say in forest policy, local rangers tapdance around the issue, audience members share their pained ironic takes in sotto voce and everyone is told, finally, to just shut up because it’s going to be Strickland’s Way or nothing.
Medicine Bow National Forest’s draft management plan, anyone?
Political/resource issues aside, this is also another chapter in the story of the life of Joe Pickett’s family, which has already faced its share of tragedy – an unborn son killed when his wife is shot in the first book, the loss of a beloved horse in the second – and in Winterkill must deal with more as the Pickett’s foster daughter April (Box also has a wonderful gift for writing child characters) is kidnapped and put directly in harm’s way by her deranged mother, holed up on the mountain with the “federal government-hating outlaws.”
An intriguing new character is introduced, too, in the person of Nate Romanowski, a falconer and true individualist who undergoes a surprising metamorphosis – not in himself, but in the perceptions of him induced in the reader. It’s high time Joe had a sidekick – and what a sidekick – and I would enthusiastically nominate Romanowski for this role. More, please.
And so I wait, along with the rest of Box’s growing readership, to see what he’s going to come up with next. There are many other intriguing issues in which Joe could find himself entangled. Hint: our favorite saying around southern Wyoming and the town that is one of the three** on which Box based his fictitious Saddlestring: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.”
* Probably an occupational hazard: I would expect no less from a guy who still makes his actual living marketing trips to Wyoming to European Tourists. Box is the founder and CEO of Rocky Mountain International. Scenery porn is an indispensable tool of that trade.
** I’m only sure of two of the three: Sheridan, Wyoming and my hometown, Saratoga (mentioned as an aside in Winterkill for its annual ice fishing derby, which Box once ran when he was the chamber of commerce director here. Thanks for the plug, buddy!).