Robert Anglen , The Republic
March 16, 2017
Bestselling thriller writer C.J. Box is an easy guy to like. He's even easier to tease.
So when he asked me if I would review his latest Joe Pickett novel, I decided to have some fun at his expense.
"Sure, I can do that," I said. "But what if I don't like it?"
He looked at me deadpan for a moment before touching the brim of his cowboy hat and flashing a smile. "Oh, I think you're going to like it."
Turns out the joke was on me. Box wasn't kidding.
"Vicious Circle" might be Box's best book yet, and that's saying something after sixteen solid thrillers in a series that never fails to deliver.
The story is at once familiar — and different. Box offers his usual cast of wardens, trackers, ranchers, hunters and killers back-dropped by his beloved Big Horn Mountain landscapes. But the narrative is darker, the pace faster and the descriptions leaner, meaner. The book moves. And it is utterly relentless.
"Vicious Circle" opens with an aerial search and a killing captured on thermal-image cameras. Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett is aboard a small plane, looking for missing hunting guide and ne'er-do-well Dave Farkus.
As he alternates glances from the dense forest below to the infrared shapes on the iPad in front of him, Pickett catches the ghostly form of a man hiding behind a tree as three others advance on him soundlessly. There are several flashes. The plane banks. Pickett tells the pilot and copilot he just witnessed a murder.
Jump back in time two days. Farkus is hunched over his usual seat in a Saddlestring bar, trying and failing to make time with the bartender, when in walks Dallas Cates.
Anyone familiar with the Pickett books knows the threat Cates poses to Joe and his family. Cates blames the Picketts for his family's ruination, the deaths of his father and brother, his mother's incarceration. Having served his own two-year jolt, Cates has nothing but malice on his mind. He takes a booth with three others and puts his plot in motion.
Farkus, who has accompanied Pickett on many misadventures, tries to warn him. Not surprisingly, he bungles it and the next day vanishes from his hunting camp, steaks left out to thaw.
Back to the search. Pickett is on horseback and trying to outrun a snowstorm as he leads sheriff's deputies to the location of the shooting. A flock of ravens marks it. The body is lying in the snow, disemboweled, face mostly ripped away.
Evidence is collected. Shell casings and bullets are recovered from the scene. The body is tentatively identified. Within hours Cates is in custody. Inside his truck, deputies find blood and guns. The case looks like a slam dunk, but the mayhem has just begun.
"Vicious Circle" completes a three-book arc Box began with "Stone Cold" and continued in "Endangered." Both books dealt with Pickett's 18-year-old foster daughter, April, and her devastating relationship with Cates.
Despite those themes, the book represents a departure for Box, whose Pickett books often revolve controversial political policies or conservation issues impacting the modern West.
Maybe departure is the wrong word. Pickett may no longer be operating as the governor's personal "range rider," but Box seems to be stretching his authorial range. Gone are the plot devices, the reliable and engaging western-land lessons. Instead, he gives readers a stripped-down story built on threat, violence and reaction.
Box appears to be borrowing from some of his recent stand-alone thrillers such as "The Badlands," and "The Highway" for a grittier and more propulsive read.
That's not to say he shorts on the trademark imagery and descriptions. Box weaves wilderness forensics, country-courtroom drama, rural money laundering and even some falconeering into the story. He also offers a satisfying subplot involving some very crafty poachers working Twelve Sleep County.
Box can even be forgiven for one of those exasperating coincidences that plague crime fiction because it allows him to bring Pickett's lethal — and amoral? pragmatic? — friend Nate Romanowski into the chase; in this case by way of rappelling down a sheer cliff.
Some of the best scenes involve Pickett's inability to let his work go. As he tells one would-be hunter: "I'm not on patrol, but I'm always on duty."
As always, the backbone of any Pickett story is his poignant relationship with his wife and daughters, told with heartbreaking honesty and humor. It is Pickett's family who is most in danger as Cates exacts his revenge. Cates knows they are Pickett's weak spot and he intends to make each of them suffer in turn.
Nate might still refer to Pickett as Dudley Do-Right (and labels his cell phone accordingly), but even Pickett has a breaking a point.
"If he tries to harm anyone in our family, things are going to get real Western, real fast," Pickett says.
It's a pleasure to read along as Box tests Pickett's resolve and stretches his own limits.
Therein lies the moral of the story. Beware of smiling guys in cowboy hats. They might be holding something back. And it might be something vicious.
What: The bestselling author signs and discuss his new thriller, "Vicious Circle," the 17th book featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 23.
Where: Hilton Scottsdale Resort, 6333 N Scottsdale Road.
Admission: Free; $27 for the book.
Details: 480-947-2974, poisonedpen.com