What a ride! What a read! I think C.J. Box has got the hang of this Western thriller thing. This is the eighth entry in his Joe Pickett series and they've gotten better and better. This is easily the best one yet, in my opinion.
The events in this book take place a bit less than a year since the last book, Free Fire, which was set in Yellowstone National Park. We find that Joe, who was fired from his position as game warden in Saddlestring, Wyoming, is still on board as a special agent for the governor, which means that he's at the governor's beck and call to handle whatever assignments he decides to hand out and be the governor's eyes and ears on the ground.
For the first time in their lives, Joe and his wife Marybeth have bought a house. They are no longer living in government housing and are enjoying(?) the status of homeowner with all its responsibilities and the headaches of living up to their neighbors' expectations of yard and home care. Their older daughter, Sheridan, is now a teenager and experiencing the upheavals of that fraught chapter of life.
Meanwhile, Joe's friend, Nate Romanowski, who was betrayed and arrested by the Feds at the end of the last book, is languishing in prison, awaiting trial for allegedly murdering a sheriff.
All of these changes to his life are making Joe Pickett a very unhappy camper.
Then, suddenly, Joe is shocked out of his personal ennui by a series of murders. Hunters are being hunted and killed and their bodies mutilated. The first two killings in different parts of the state were ambiguous and might have been hunting accidents, but then the body of a man is found at a hunting camp in the Saddlestring district, strung up from a tree, gutted and flayed and the head removed as hunters would do for an elk. This was no accident.
Hunting is important to the economy of Wyoming and the governor is concerned that he's going to have to shut it down in the interests of public health and safety. He assigns his man, Joe, to help with the investigation. He hires a famous man tracker to come and try to track down the perpetrator.
The tracking does not go well and soon there are more dead bodies on the ground, including the tracker himself.
The investigation regroups and Joe advocates for bringing Nate in because he knows the area and is himself an expert tracker. The governor agrees and, over FBI objections, Nate is released into Joe's custody. Now that the two are reunited readers of this series will feel confident that the mystery will be solved and justice - at least a rough justice - will be served.
I thought Box did a great job with the plotting and pacing of this thriller. The writing was tight, spare, and clean. He gives us a narrative by the hunter of the hunters, as well as the third person report of Joe's and Nate's perspectives. Speculation about the identity of the killer ranges from an anti-hunting activist to a lone psychopath or to someone with a personal vendetta. But what could that personal vendetta possibly be? There seems to be no connection between the victims, other than the fact that they were hunters.
Box plays fair with his clues and I am proud to say that I began to get a glimmer of the solution to the mystery perhaps halfway to two-thirds through the book. By the time of the conclusion, I was pretty confident in my reasoning. I will just say that reading this book at this time of heightened sensitivity to the issue of sexual harassment and violence probably gave me added insight to the possible motive behind the killings.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars