I’ve been reading a lot lately. Not writing, actually, as followers of this blog will have noticed; hand cramps. But I’ve always loved good books, and I’ve come across a writer and a series that are real corkers. And so I’m here to tell you about them.
Joe Pickett is a game warden, living in Saddlestring, a small town in Wyoming. He absolutely loves his job; loves hiking and horseback riding, loves hunting and (especially) fly fishing. He even enjoys riding into hunting camps and checking everyone’s hunting licenses. And Joe’s a good guy. Bit of a doofus sometimes, but devoted to his hyper-competent wife, Marybeth, and his three daughters. And the various horses and dogs that fill out the Pickett household.
He’s also exceptionally good at solving murders. In fact, he’s a bit like Miss Marple; his home community is an amazingly murderous place. But because he’s of that community, a local in good standing, he’s able to notice vagaries of behavior (or misbehavior) that suggest, well, untoward acts.
Miss Marple, though, sat back and ever-so-keenly, observed. Joe blunders into various fraught situations, has misadventures, and somehow survives them. He makes a lot of mistakes. But he’s so good-hearted, so resolutely honest, he wins our heart, and he solves a lot of crimes. He’s also aided by his best friend, Nate Romanowski, a former Special Ops whiz now living as a master falconer/off-the-grid survivalist, an exceptional shot with an oddball huge pistol. Who enjoys climbing trees in the nude, and communing, underwater, with fish. Nate’s a tremendous character, a wonderful sidekick.
And from time to time Joe’s asked to investigate some remote corner of the state by Wyoming’s flamboyant and eccentric Governor Rulon. The governor is Joe’s protector, though he could also teach a master class in plausible deniability. But his heart’s occasionally in the right place, and though he’s devious and unreliable, he’s also the reason Joe manages to keep his job. (Among other peccadilloes, Joe is terrible at getting along with sheriffs. Or, mostly, the FBI. Or bureaucrats of all stripes).
Joe’s also very bad with trucks. It’s a running joke in the series; how many state-issued trucks he ruins. Never mind, though; Governor Rulon generally gets him a new one.
Oh, yes, I forgot one of the series’ most memorable characters; Joe’s mother-in-law, Missy. She’s beautiful, well groomed and sleek, and also an utter sociopath. Her superpower is marrying up. She finds a wealthy man, seduces him, marries him, gets her attorney to draw up a pre-nup leaving the man’s fortune to her, and then she’s off to hunt down the next, even richer one. When necessary, she also has been known to add homicide to her repertoire. She also thinks her daughter Marybeth is too good for Joe, and urges Marybeth to divorce the bumpkin. Which she never does; not even tempted; Joe and MB are solid. Still, what fun during family holidays.
The Joe Pickett series is written by a Wyoming native named C. J. Box, who is, as it happens, also married with three daughters. And they’re wonderful fun.
I’m completely bonkers over these novels, as you may have guessed by the fact that I’ve devoured seventeen of them in two weeks. They’re exciting, beautifully paced, genuinely mysterious. And Box’s prose, though generally sturdy and straightforward, has lovely moments of genuine lyricism.
I like the books, in part, because I’m a Westerner myself, and recognize the landscapes and people he so memorably describes. But I’m also a political animal, and each of the books has a political dimension. Of course, one of the main characters is a Governor, so there’s some partisanship built into his interactions with the other characters. But many of the mysteries also have politics at the periphery (or at times, even the center) of their stories. Environmentalists are frequently villains in the novels, but not always, and Joe’s something of an environmentalist himself.
But I like that. I like the idea that politics matters, that political disputes can be folded into the texture of a mystery series. That political differences can even lead to violence, at times.
I imagine that Joe’s position on gun control is pretty resolutely Wyoming–Joe owns a number of guns, with which he’s frequently called upon to defend himself. As he’s fond of saying, “it’s about to get real Western around here.” And violence ensues. Just like it does for the Good Guys in most detective novels.
But Joe’s not a detective. He’s a game warden. And a terrifically drawn and utterly compelling central character for a series of mystery novels. Very very highly recommended.