Wednesday, March 28, 2018

C.J. Box delivers slow-burn environmental thriller in new Joe Pickett mystery

, The Republic
March 23, 2018

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Wyoming's favorite "range rider" isn't sure where one case ends and another begins in C.J Box's new slow-burn thriller, "The Disappeared."

Game warden Joe Pickett is summoned by the state's newly elected governor to resume his role as an unofficial investigator, this time to find a wealthy British tourist who vanished from an exclusive resort and hasn't been seen in weeks.

But from outset, the case is different, politically charged. Pickett has always been protected from the fallout of his inquiries. Now he feels exposed and threatened, as if he's being set up. He's told in no uncertain terms that his future rests on the outcome. He just isn't sure what outcome the governor and his fixers expect.

So begins the 18th Pickett novel, one of the most deliberate and sure-footed in the series. In many ways it is a roots novel, a throwback to the earliest Pickett books, with its environmental themes and overlapping plot lines.

It is a surprise coming on the heels of last year's brutally efficient "Vicious Circle," a book built on unrelenting suspense with a stripped-down story of murder, revenge and reaction. It put Pickett and his family in the jaws of a slowly closing trap.

Here the threats are subtle, the mystery more compelling. The damage is not so much physical as emotional. Pickett's family might not be in mortal jeopardy, but his existence— his identity as a game warden and his ability to provide for his wife and daughters — is no less threatened.

"The Disappeared" showcases Box's versatility. He manipulates readers like a no-limit hold 'em pro: drawing them in with the classic mystery staple of a missing heiress, then raising on the blind with contemporary Western issues while never hinting at what he's got in the hole.

And you better watch those hole cards.

The story is backdropped by the extreme locales of the Upper North Platte River, from the poverty-stricken hamlets of a post-coal, post-fracking economy to the ultra-rich resorts where societal elites pay top dollar to play cowboy at exclusive dude ranches. 

"The Disappeared" opens with a disturbing set of images. The night man at a small sawmill, paid to tender the disposal of sawdust inside a 50-foot beehive burner, is waiting for a secret delivery. He's taking kickbacks to stoke the fire above 1,000 degrees and then walk away from his post. When he returns, he tries to ignore the sweet, organic smell belching from the chimney.

Pickett is dispatched to Saratoga, about 20 miles south of Interstate 80 in the dead of winter. Ostensibly, he's there to take over operations for the district game warden who quit his post without notice or forwarding address.

But his assignment from the governor is to quietly find out what happened to Kate Shelford-Longden, who vanished after leaving the exclusive Silver Creek Ranch. It seems everybody in town has a theory on what happened to "Cowgirl Kate," as the British tabloids dub the missing public-relations director. Clues, however, are non-existent.

Pickett doesn't do politics. His straight-ahead style and Dudley-Do-Right manner clash with the bureaucratic subterfuge and power plays of elected office. Pickett's reluctance to do the governor's bidding is offset only by the opportunity to see his oldest daughter, Sheridan, who is working as a wrangler at Silver Creek.

Sheridan brings Pickett a new set of challenges by way of Silver Creek's charming head wrangler. Readers, along with Pickett and his wife, have watched their three daughters grow up over the past two decades. Their relationships resonate with authenticity and, in many ways, give the books their heart. It's no surprise to find Pickett grappling with his oldest daughter's adulthood.

Enter into all of this uncertainty Pickett's enigmatic and sometimes violent friend, Nate Romanowski. The special-forces veteran is also struggling with change, slowly coming in off the grid and into semi-legitimacy with his new falconry-for-hire business.

But Nate's still got conspiracy theories. And just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean there aren't powerful forces aligning against you. He shows up at Pickett's hotel with a concern about eagle-hunting permits. He wants to know why the federal government has stopped issuing permits that allow falconers to hunt with eagles. 

And he thinks Pickett is the one who can get the answer, or at least use his influence with the governor to free up permits. Pickett tries to dissuade Nate of any illusions about his leverage with the governor.  

But Nate knows one way to put the governor square in Pickett's pocket: Solve the case. He agrees to help help find out what happened to Kate in exchange for Pickett's help on the permits. Pickett agrees, with one hard rule: "I'm serious about not busting any heads."

Nate agrees until he doesn't, and then it's time for his .454 Casull revolver, quite literally, one of the most powerful handguns in the world. No offense, Dirty Harry.

As Nate beats information out of mountain meth dealers, Pickett focuses on the ranch, the missing warden and the disappeared tourist. 

Box, who along with his wife owned an international tourism marketing firm, layers his story with an insider's knowledge of the Western economy and the dude-ranch industry.

He also clues us into a slice of British fetish life via websites that cater to women who want "authentic" cowboy experiences. Call it Cowboy Tinder. Who knew this could be a thing? 

Box lets us ride side-saddle with Pickett and Nate as they take us into the high country in pickups, on horseback and on snowmobiles. We get to explore a year-round trout fishery on a natural spring, go to a huge wind farm that makes a dubious promise to deliver jobs to Wyoming and power to California, and stumble into remote cabins that serve as ramshackle love nests.

All of these trails converge at the smoking makeshift crematorium, where a casual killer is determined to protect an ugly secret.

Will you be surprised? Pickett probably says it best: "Yup."


KSCJ: Interview: C.J. Box -

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