Sunday, March 20, 2011

“Nowhere To Run”: Wyoming Noir

One of the best literary novels of last year was “Nowhere To Run” by C. J. Box. It was submitted for consideration for the Hammett Prize for “literary excellence” in a crime novel. It was one of the five novels I read for the contest that, in my opinion, deserved the prize; the others: “Iron River” by T. Jefferson Parker; “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter” by Tom Franklin; “Bury Your Dead” by Louise Penny, and ‘The Good Son” by Michael Gruber (all previously reviewed here). Who’s Number 1? I couldn’t say. All five are set in their own unique worlds with full-blooded protagonists that grab you by the sleeve in Chapter One and never let go.

“Nowhere To Run” is the tenth Joe Pickett novel. Joe’s a Wyoming Game Warden who patrols wild mountain ranges checking fishing and hunting licenses, and invariably runs into more lethal violators. In this one, he’s finishing up as the temporary replacement game warden in the isolated town of Baggs, Wyo. Someone--or something (the talk is of a Wendigo)—is butchering elk before the hunter can get to his kill, campsites ransacked, and a female Olympic runner disappeared in the mountains without a trace. Joe saddles up for an anticipated five-day horseback patrol into the Little Snake River Valley and up onto the Sierra Madre Range in Southern Wyoming. (I love the names.) Pickett has done his time in the “warden’s graveyard” for having in the past ticketed the Wyoming Governor for fishing without a license. Joe Pickett’s the kind of guy who tries to do the job even when it hurts or just might get him killed.

Chapter One masterfully evokes the wild beauty of the mountains: “…Pickett paused on the lip of a wide hollow basin and dug in his saddlebag for his notebook. The bow hunters had described where they’d tracked the wounded elk, and he matched the topography against their description…He glassed the basin with binoculars and noted the fingers of pine trees reaching down through the grassy swale and the craterlike depressions in the hollow. This, he determined, was the place.”

This is on the first page of Chapter One, and throughout the book there is observation or description that persuades you the author knows this out-of-the-ordinary world and will be a faithful guide. Pickett talks to his horses (a nice touch)-- Buddy, his mount, and Blue Roanie, his packhorse. “Stop spooking yourself, he said aloud to himself with authority. But it wasn’t just him. His horses were unusually twitchy and emotional. He could feel Buddy’s tension through the saddle. Buddy’s muscles were tight and balled, he breathed rapid shallow breaths, and his ears were up and alert. The old game trail he took was untracted and covered with a thin sheet of pine needles but it switchbacked up the mountain, and as they rose, the sky broke through the canopy and sent shafts of light like jail bars to the forest floor. Joe had to keep nudging and kissing at his mount to keep him going up the face of the mountain into the thick forest…” C.J. Box puts you in these wild places and injects palpable dread throughout.

One measure of a novel is the magnetism/ menace (a la “Silence of the Lambs”) of its villain. In ‘Nowhere To Run,’ twin brothers, a rangy 6-feet-five-inches tall, living in the wild, are more than a match for our hero. The author smoothly layers in a sub-plot involving the missing female runner, and executes surprising plot twists in wrapping it all up satisfyingly.

I’d never read C. J. Box before. His first Joe Pickett novel was ‘Open Season’ in 2001. “Nowhere To Run” is the tenth Joe Pickett, and number eleven, “Cold Wind”, will be out March 22nd. What do the other ‘literary’ novels mentioned—‘Iron River, ‘Crooked Letter’, ‘Bury Your Dead’ and ‘The Good Son’—have in common with ‘Nowhere To Run’? Essentially, an enthralling world, limned in affecting language, where the protagonist’s fighting for some good inspires empathy in us readers. Respectively, an ATF cop in the border towns between the U.S. and Mexico; a deputy sheriff in a rural Mississippi town; a French Canadian homicide detective in Old Quebec City; a U.S. Special Forces soldier undercover on the Afghanistan Tribal Frontier; a Fish and Game Warden in the Wyoming Mountain Ranges. Good stories, of likeable guys, in foreign places we’d like to see.

--Robert Knightly

1 comment:

  1. I've been a Joe Pickett fan for ages. Box can write as well as plot.