By C.J. Box
What do you do when a good guy crosses the line into bad-guy territory? Or when a bad guy is actually sort of a good guy?
Those are the questions that plague Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett and his friend/protector/dark side, Nate Romanowski, in C.J. Box’s latest contemporary Western crime novel. That Box not only found plausible, compelling answers to these questions — but thought to think of them in the first place — shows that there’s plenty of life left in this series, now in its 14th volume.
In “Stone Cold,” Pickett is sent by the Wyoming governor to a remote county in the eastern part of the state to look into the activities of reclusive billionaire Wolfgang Templeton, who, it turns out, is operating a high-end murder-for-hire business. And it turns out that Nate Romanowski is one of Templeton’s murderers for hire.
The twist there is that Templeton’s targets are the world’s worst 1 percenters: thieving stock traders, conscience-free tech moguls and the like. His motto when giving an assignment: “Do some good out there.”
Such a morally ambiguous construct fits the moral code of Romanowksi, the ex-Special Forces operative who lives off the grid and on the run from federal agents. But it does not fit Pickett’s more rigid, straightforward code. Are the two friends, who have bailed each other out of scores of scrapes that have strained each other’s codes at times, destined to meet each other again on opposite sides of right and wrong?
The ridiculously gifted Box is up to resolving this challenge. And in lean, light-footed but deceptively deep prose, he not only maintains unbearable suspense but seeds the plot with the weightier societal themes that have become a series trademark.
This time, it’s about the dark side of the dependence that rich people in the remote West have created among the poor in their communities. And how easily good intentions can turn bad when guns are involved.
While “Stone Cold” is among the better entries in the Pickett oeuvre, it’s not perfect. A subplot involving Pickett’s daughter, Sheridan, and a creepy-trenchcoat kid in her college dormitory sputters out at the end.
And not enough space is given to another promising plot thread involving Pickett’s adopted daughter, April, and her involvement with a local-hero rodeo champion who may or may not be a rapist.
And, increasingly, the Pickett novels are not satisfying standalone reads. “Stone Cold,” steeped in a lot of personal history among characters dating back to the first book, “Open Season,” is no way to introduce a reader to this excellent series.
“Stone Cold” also leaves a lot of story and suspense on the table, more than most series mystery novels.
That’s a mixed blessing. It’s frustrating to not have resolution on some of the plot strands. But it also leaves a lot to look forward to — and signals that Box’s interest in the Pickett series remains strong enough for several more novels.
That’s nothing but good news for this underappreciated author, who has long and unjustly dwelled in the shadow of fellow Wyoming writer Craig Johnson.
Jim Thomsen is a writer and book-manuscript editor who lives in Seattle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org