Review

Below Zero: A Joe Pickett Novel

by C. J. Box

The readership for C.J. Box’s books seems to grow
exponentially upon the publication of each new title. Box has found
an interesting niche, writing modern Western thrillers that in
effect have relaunched the genre. His primary protagonist, Joe
Pickett, is a good man for whom things more often than not go
wrong, not so much because of bad choices but more as the result of
the draw breaking badly.

One of the greatest tragedies of Pickett’s life took place
at the conclusion of WINTERFALL when April, his foster daughter,
was killed in a horrific accident for which he still feels
responsible. BELOW ZERO is a sequel of sorts to that work. Pickett
is a warden-at-large in Wyoming, thanks to the largesse of the
canny if somewhat eccentric governor, who is the beneficiary of
Pickett’s assets and has assisted in the cleanup of some of
his liabilities. Just after closing the case on a sadistic poacher
who has been maiming animals for the sport of it, Pickett returns
home to a bombshell. Someone has been texting Sherry,
Pickett’s older daughter, and identifying herself as April.
The messages could be discounted as the product of a mean and
twisted mind if not for the fact that “April” exhibits
a knowledge of the family and memories of her time with them that
only she would know. What is even more significant, though, is that
the sender knows about a series of seemingly unconnected murders
that have been taking place throughout the West.

BELOW ZERO proceeds along two tracks, with Pickett attempting to
trace the messages while a young girl, in the company of two men,
criss-crosses a wilderness of plains and mountains on a bizarre
quest. The men are a strange pair, to say the least. One is a
Chicago mobster named Stenko, who is dying of cancer and is on a
two-fold mission that he hopes to accomplish before his passing.
Stenko wants to recover from his accountant the fortune in
ill-gotten gain that has been embezzled from him and to
reestablish, at any cost, a relationship with his adult son Robert,
who he more or less abandoned as a child. Robert, the other half of
the team, is a radical environmentalist who spends his time
calculating energy use and enlisting his father to murder those who
exceed calculations of what their proper “carbon
footprint” should be. In this manner, according to Robert,
Stenko will account for and reduce his own carbon balance to below
zero.

The girl, meanwhile, is an enigma. Rescued by Stenko from bad
circumstances, her only link to the sane world is her text
messaging with Sherry, which she uses as a form of electronic
breadcrumbs. Pickett, through a combination of the information from
the girl who may or may not be April, a canny investigation, and
some arm twisting with the FBI and the governor’s office,
slowly but surely begins to track the trio --- even as he comes to
the realization that Robert has the potential to achieve disruption
of an area far beyond the state of Wyoming. And, from a personal
standpoint, Pickett’s success or failure in catching up with
them will make the difference in determining if the girl who is
unwillingly accompanying the father and son is, against all logic,
truly April, or if the Pickett family has fallen victim to the
cruelest of hoaxes.

Box takes Pickett in a bit of a different direction in BELOW
ZERO. Pickett’s inability to get his head around the social
phenomenon of texting makes him even more sympathetic to anyone
over 40, and the conclusion, which temporarily removes Pickett from
his Wyoming comfort zone, results in an occurrence that promises to
have some interesting repercussions for future volumes of this
excellent series. That is not to say that the book turns Pickett
upside down. Pickett’s pursuit and capture of the poacher is
classic Box, and the reintroduction of his friend Nate, who remains
on the run from federal law enforcement, ratchets up the excitement
level into red hot territory. As good as it it, BELOW ZERO promises
even greater things to come.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 22, 2010

Below Zero: A Joe Pickett Novel
by C. J. Box

  • Publication Date: June 16, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0399155759
  • ISBN-13: 9780399155758