Review

Winterkill

by C. J. Box



Maybe you think you've lived your whole life without knowing what
life might be like in a place called Saddlestring, Wyoming and
that's okay with you. Saddlestring is in the Twelve Sleep Valley
--- for which Twelve Sleep County is named --- and even in the dead
of winter, it's a place that people like Jackson Hole tourists
never get to see.

Well, guess what? If that's what you thought, then you were
mistaken and C. J. Box can prove it to you in one night. He can
probably do it with any of his books, but so far I've read only his
latest, WINTERKILL. Certainly I'll soon be looking for the previous
two, OPEN SEASON and SAVAGE RUN, in paperback.

Joe Pickett is a game warden. He works alone in a remote,
mountainous, heavily wooded area of Wyoming. His job is 1/3 public
contact, 1/3 field collection and 1/3 law enforcement. The
government provides his house, which includes a small office and
his long-bed pickup truck. The tools of his trade are a few rifles
and a field telescope mounted on the side of the truck. Oh, and a
handgun he'd rather not have to use because he's a poor shot with
it. And Maxine --- but Maxine is a yellow Labrador retriever, the
family pet when she's not riding around in the truck with
Joe.

It is four days before Christmas, the first big winter storm is
coming, and Joe has been watching a herd of elk move down the
mountain to graze. In Joe's territory, hunting is legal --- it's
even encouraged within the law --- and there are many people who
depend on the meat from elk and deer to make it through the winter.
Most hunters respect the animals and each other, but on this day,
something goes horribly wrong. Elk are slaughtered, and so is a
man. And the storm moves relentlessly in.

The local sheriff takes over the murder investigation, which gets
off to a slow start due to the storm's severity; during the delay,
a U.S. Forestry Service official arrives and all but takes over the
investigation. The victim was the local Forest Service employee, an
entrenched bureaucrat who made arbitrary decisions about things
like road closures that affected people's lives daily. So the
victim was heartily disliked by many, but only one man was seen
coming down the mountain near the time of the murder and he is
arrested as quickly as the weather allows. The official sent by the
Forestry Service is a woman, trailed by a magazine reporter doing a
feature story; the reporter is attractive but the woman is a
heartless power-grabber. So Joe Pickett wonders what she is doing
in the high country of Wyoming in the Twelve Sleep Valley, which is
kind of an outpost beyond which lies the Point of No Return.

On the same day that the elk and the man were slaughtered up on the
mountain, in the town of Saddlestring, Joe's three children have
watched as a caravan of campers, trucks and odd-assorted vehicles
with license plates from several different states drives through
town. Then on Christmas Day, many of these vehicles are parked
outside a little church whose congregants previously numbered
perhaps six. Joe, who is not convinced the sheriff is holding the
right man in the jail for murder, sees this passing by and leaves
his family in the car while he checks on the situation in the
church. The minister tells him that the people --- all of whom are
strangers to this small community --- have set up a winter camp on
public land outside of town. Their group is composed of survivors
of places like Ruby Ridge and Waco, including two children orphaned
in the Waco fire. These people claim to be innocents who have
banded together for mutual support and protection, but in their
numbers there is one woman with a bad past --- she's the abusive
mother of Joe's foster daughter, previously absent for three years.
He and his wife are both fiercely determined to protect the girl
whom they've been trying to adopt.

Joe Pickett is something rare in the world, and in current fiction.
He's a family man who just wants to do the right thing. He loves
his wife and daughters. He tries to be polite to his mother-in-law,
even though she seems to be suddenly living with them, unexpected
and uninvited, in their small house. Joe likes to cook pancakes for
breakfast and chili (with elk meat) for supper. He'd rather be at
home than anywhere else. But he also has a clear moral compass ---
and he will follow his own course wherever that compass
leads.

The most remarkable thing about WINTERKILL is the way C. J. Box
pulls you into Joe Pickett's world so thoroughly, so immediately,
that you will neither want to leave it nor care to remember your
own world until you've finished the book. You can read it in one
night or a couple of days at most --- but what you've read will
stay with you far longer. This is an author with something
important to say, letting his characters do it for him. His books
add a new dimension not just to mysteries, but to the whole
literary scene in our country. WINTERKILL is a must-read.

Reviewed by Ava Dianne Day on January 24, 2011

Winterkill
by C. J. Box

  • Publication Date: June 29, 2004
  • Genres: Fiction, Mystery
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley
  • ISBN-10: 0425195953
  • ISBN-13: 9780425195956