I was introduced to the writing of C.J. Box through my local library's Mystery Book Club. Open Season, the first in Box's Joe Pickett series, was the club's selection for reading in June. Although I didn't get a chance to read it in time for the meeting, the discussion of it made me curious and I put it on my to-be-read list. I'm glad I finally got around to it this week.
Box has created an enormously appealing character in Joe Pickett. A Wyoming game warden, Joe is a devoted family man with two young daughters and a pregnant wife when we first meet him. He and his family are able to barely scrape by financially on the meager salary of a state employee (Been there, done that!), but Joe is a happy man, because he's living his dream. Being a game warden was what he always wanted to be.
Not only Joe but his whole family are lovingly drawn by Box. We get to know them well and to like them and want them not just to endure but to triumph. Seven-year-old Sheridan, particularly, who has an important role to play in this story, is a child after my own heart. I know her well because I could easily see seven-year-old Dorothy in her.
The story begins with Joe's sidearm being taken from him by local wilderness outfitter/game poacher Ote Keeley when he confronts Keeley about his poaching, catching him red-handed, literally hands dripping blood, with the carcasses of his out-of-season kills. Keeley eventually gives the gun back and Joe writes him a ticket for poaching. Soon the story of how the bumbling game warden was disarmed is making the rounds and Joe becomes something of a laughingstock. But, he stoically continues doing his job every day to the best of his ability and continues to write tickets for scofflaws, even when it might be more convenient or popular for him to look the other way.
Then comes the night sometime later when a mortally wounded Ote Keeley rushes into the yard of the Pickett family with a plastic tub in his hands. His face is seen at her bedroom window by Sheridan but she convinces herself that it was only a dream and doesn't wake her parents. The next morning, Ote Keeley's dead body is found next to the Picketts' woodpile with an open plastic tub containing some kind of animal scat by his side. Why would Keeley use his dying breath to drag himself to the Pickett home? What was he carrying in that plastic container? Joe is intrigued, of course, and he gathers some of the scat into envelopes to send for analysis, before he calls in the local sheriff.
As the investigation proceeds, Joe begins to suspect that something is rotten in the state of Wyoming. He and another game warden and a local deputy are sent into the wilds to find Ote's two partners, who, it is suspected may be responsible for shooting him. When they arrive at the camp, they find another eccentric local coming out of one of the tents with a gun, but the other two men in Pickett's party shoot the man before he has a chance to say anything. Searching the camp, they make another gruesome find in one of the other tents.
This is a real page-turner of a first novel. Box keeps the action going and keeps the reader guessing until close to the end, even though it seemed obvious pretty early on who the bad and badder guys were going to be. I look forward to reading more in the series and seeing how these characters develop.
I did have quibbles with one part of Box's narrative. His presentation of the effects of the Endangered Species Act seemed quite biased to me. He bemoaned the fact of the negative impact on the local economy when logging and other outdoors jobs were lost because of the need to protect a dwindling population of his fictional "Miller's weasels," which seemed to be based on the real-life experience of the endangered black-footed ferret. In the next breath, he talks about outsiders pouring into town to see the ferret or to take part in its protection. Surely, those people have to stay somewhere. They have to eat something. They have to buy gas for their vehicles or supplies for their treks into the wilderness. This would seem to pump a lot of money into the local economy and to create new jobs and new opportunities for entrepreneurship. Does the word "ecotourism" ring a bell? I know it certainly does along the Texas coast with all its bird and butterfly festivals and its year-round influx of birders and other outdoors-lovers from right around the world. I don't see why that wouldn't work in Wyoming as well.