Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Open Season by C. J. Box

Introducing Wyoming’s Elmore Leonard
I’m a frequent visitor to Wyoming, but the coronavirus put the kibosh on this year’s trip, so I decided to enjoy the next best thing by reading some Wyoming literature. Wyoming native C. J. Box has written a series of at least twenty mystery novels set in his home state that showcase the crime solving skills of game warden Joe Pickett. The first installment and Box’s debut novel, Open Season, was published in 2001. This is the first Pickett mystery that I’ve read, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Joe Pickett is game warden for the fictional Twelve Sleep County. He lives in the town of Saddlestring, which borrows its name from a real Wyoming town but isn’t really based on that town. Joe is a family man with a wife, two daughters, and another child on the way. The Picketts struggle to make ends meet on a game warden’s salary. Joe is relatively new to his position in Twelve Sleep, but he’s already suffered one embarrassing gaffe on the job. While writing up a citation for poaching, the poacher in question, named Ote Keeley, steals Joe’s weapon from out of his holster. Though the situation is resolved without violence, the story eventually gets out, and it’s a hard thing for a lawman to live down. Months later, the Pickett family hears a disturbance behind their house. When Joe goes out to investigate, he finds the body of Ote Keeley sprawled across his woodpile, shot to death. The local police investigate, but Joe finds their conclusions rather hasty and sketchy, so he decides to look into the case himself.

This mystery story is padded with quite a bit of family drama, but that drama is compelling enough to keep the reader interested throughout. Box delivers well-drawn multi-faceted characters, and one really learns a lot about the life of a game warden. The mystery itself is quite intriguing but not an extremely perplexing whodunit. The breadcrumb trail of clues that Box provides makes it possible for the reader to stay a couple steps ahead of Joe at all times. Box is very good at building suspense, however, which makes this novel ideally suited to a film adaptation. In Open Season, he almost draws that suspense out a little too far, to the point where the reader is about ready to cry, “Get to it already,” but the exciting climactic scenes are a rewarding payoff for the anticipation. Box adds one ingenious element to the story that is handled so plausibly he’ll have you Googling to find out whether it’s real or fictional.

One of the best things about Box’s writing is that he establishes his setting with a great deal of realism. The natural environment of Wyoming, Joe’s work as a game warden, and the state government bureaucracy are all depicted with a ring of authenticity. The fictional locations, however, counteract this realism; it would have been better had Box set his novels in a real Wyoming county. The story also sacrifices some dignity with a few unnecessarily juvenile sexual references. A certain amount of sleaze often adds necessary spice and atmosphere to a mystery story, but when the grown men in this novel talk about women, they sound like teenagers from the movie Porky’s. Our hero Joe Pickett, thankfully, is not among the offenders.

Box’s writing in Open Season calls to mind the smartly plotted crime thrillers of Elmore Leonard, but the Wyoming setting and game warden perspective result in something refreshingly original. This proved to be a fun, thrilling, and even educational read, and I look forward to following more of Joe’s cases.
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