Why should you read a novel about a nice guy, good family man, Wyoming game warden who keeps getting involved in contentious issues that lead to major crimes he ends up solving when others botch it?
Because it’s by C.J. Box. An incredibly talented storyteller, one of America’s best writers in any genre, Box is always a great read, offering terrific entertainment that’s also interesting and informative.
Since 2001, when his “Open Season” won four major Best First Novel awards, Box’s novels, 27 to date, have sold more than ten million copies in the United States, been translated into some 30 languages, and continue to rack up prestigious awards.
This fall, ABC will launch a new television series, “The Big Sky,” based on his Cassie Dewell female-cop-turned-private-investigator novels. Another television series based on his Game Warden Joe Pickett novels is in development with Paramount TV Studios, but release details are not yet available.
Box’s latest—“Long Range”—No. 20 in his highly acclaimed Joe Pickett series, has a half dozen plots and subplots. One involves Joe assisting a fellow game warden elsewhere in Wyoming to investigate the death of a hunting guide, who was attacked by a grizzly while with a client whose eyewitness account is highly suspicious.
The novel’s main focus is on the attempted murder of a tyrannical judge in which the bullet meant for the judge hits his wife. Joe is hauled back home because the judge wants anyone in the area in any way connected with law enforcement working on this case.
What follows is C.J. Box at his best—which is synonymous with crime mystery writing at its best. He has a rare talent for bringing to life the Wyoming setting in a way that carries you there, and for creating characters you feel you know and can see: Joe; his smart, ever-helpful librarian wife; his falconer best friend who’s a former outlaw with a special forces background; his awful mother-in-law; a drug cartel hit man; and more, including a new sheriff who’s as arrogant as he is inept and who charges the wrong person with the crime.
Having such a mix of plots and subplots is a very difficult task for even the cleverest writer, but the skill with which C.J. Box orchestrates them and seamlessly brings them all together in the end makes it ever so easy on the reader.
This is a riveting, nail-biting mystery that will keep you on the edge of your seat from early on until the end.
C.J. Box spoke with me by phone from his ranch near Saratoga, Wyoming:
Ret. Ambassador Fred J. Eckert: How would you describe your character Joe Pickett?
C.J. Box: Joe Pickett is one of 50 Wyoming game wardens. He has a huge district and he’s often without backup. As is true of real game wardens, he’s often pulled into crimes and crises unrelated to enforcing game and fish regulations. He’s heavily armed, alone, and he tries to do the right thing even though he screws up from time to time. He and his wife, Marybeth, have three daughters.
Amb. Eckert: Is there any—much—of you in Joe? Is he based on anyone you know? A composite?
Mr. Box: Joe is a composite of what I’d consider a very common Western man. Obviously, every character in a fictional novel must share or reflect some of the author’s personality in varying degrees. I was never a game warden, although I was a state employee for a few years, and I try to spend as much time as I can outdoors. I’ve met several game wardens over the years who could be Joe Pickett. I have three daughters myself.
Amb. Eckert: Why a game warden? And why one who’s such a normal, likable, good guy? Did you worry this would be considered too plain vanilla by a publisher and readers? Ever imagine such a character would become a favorite of millions of readers worldwide?
Mr. Box: I never anticipated that Joe Pickett would go beyond book one—“Open Season”—and I certainly never thought of a long series. I was most interested in exploring the Endangered Species Act, and the best conduit for the plot I’d come up with was a game warden. I remember wanting to avoid so many clichés within the mystery/crime genre where the protagonist has a dark past, emotional baggage, and he never loses a showdown or fight. I wanted a normal guy who works hard, loves his family, and does his best. In a way, it was kind of subversive. I was thrilled when so many readers embraced the idea. A survey my publisher once did shows that 51 percent of my readers are women.
Amb. Eckert: You’ve produced a large stack of novels with each succeeding one fresh, never waning, even though most have the same cast of characters. How have you managed to succeed in keeping this up long past the point where so many novelists have produced all the best work they can and are coasting? What’s your strategy here?
Mr. Box: I try to incorporate real-life events, controversies, and themes into every novel, so each book is much more than a whodunit. I love researching subjects and incorporating them into the book, and I think this helps keep them fresh. Also, Joe and the family age in real-time so the characters get older and develop.
Amb. Eckert: Have you always wanted to be a writer?
Mr. Box: Yes. I think writers are hard-wired to be writers, even if they’re never published. I recall walking down the aisles in my local Casper, Wyoming, library as a 12-year-old to figure out where my book would be shelved one day.
Amb. Eckert: What writers had the greatest influence on you and in what way?
Mr. Box: My favorite literary stylist is Thomas McGuane. I’m also a fan of Jim Harrison, Flannery O’Connor, A.B. Guthrie, Raymond Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, Charles Portis, and Joseph Heller. All have strong styles.
Amb. Eckert: What did you do before becoming a full-time novelist?
Mr. Box: I worked on ranches and for energy companies growing up, and my first job out of college was for a small weekly newspaper in Wyoming where I think I learned 90 percent of what I know. After that, I worked for the Wyoming Division of Tourism and then for 24 years as the owner of an international marketing company that represented five western states in Europe, Asia, and Australia and New Zealand. But I always wanted to be an author.
Amb. Eckert: Wasn’t journalism better back when you worked as a journalist—less biased and agenda driven, more serious in questioning and drawing out facts and truth?
Mr. Box: I learned journalism during the inverted pyramid and straight-news era. Although I wrote features as well, I didn’t try to make every story conform to a preconceived narrative. In order to get back to that, I’m afraid most of the journalism schools in the country would need to be leveled, and most journalism professors given their walking papers.
Amb. Eckert: Talk about what it took for you to make it big as a writer.
Mr. Box: Research and then perseverance. I deconstructed novels I loved to figure out how the writer made them work and how they shaped the narrative. This wasn’t learned in a creative writing class. Then, I worked at it for 20 years.
Amb. Eckert: Where do you get your plot ideas? How do you then proceed to write the book?
Mr. Box: Ideas are everywhere you look. Once I have two or three major plot points, I research the hell out of them and then try to figure out how to pull a reader through them in a page-turning way. I’m an outliner, so I kind of “storyboard” each novel before I start writing.
Amb. Eckert: What’s your idea of fun things to do when you’re not busy writing or promoting your books?
Mr. Box: I’m a fly-fisherman and I can see my favorite river from our little ranch. It takes less than 10 minutes to get to it.
Amb. Eckert: Other things you like a lot?
Mr. Box: My wife Laurie, reading, running my dogs, hunting birds, the Denver Nuggets, working out, Manhattans, cigars.
Amb. Eckert: And what are some things you just can’t stand?
Mr. Box: Blind extremism, arrogant and stupid bureaucrats and public officials, and political correctness.
Amb. Eckert: For example?
Mr. Box: I consider myself an environmentalist but more of the classic conservationist stripe. There are and must be trade-offs. Too many people who claim to want to save the planet do it by repressing freedoms, bossing people around, and denying poor people a better life. It’s turned into a twisted kind of cult religion in too many cases.
Amb. Eckert: Anything else?
Mr. Box: I live in a part of the country with a fairly large indigenous population. They refer to themselves as Indians or sometimes Natives. The Sioux-owned and operated newspaper in South Dakota is called “Indian Country News.” When an “enlightened” copyeditor reads my novel and changes every “Indian” or “Native” description to “Native American,” I push back. Also, I can’t stand how our elites in Washington and on the coasts assume they know better than we do about everything when they’ve screwed up so many times.
Amb. Eckert: I think it’s fair to say that readers of your novels will not detect any bias you might have on any political or social issues. Is this a conscious effort?
Mr. Box: I don’t write novels with an agenda, and I don’t read novels with an agenda. I like to tackle controversial subjects, but I do it by providing both sides and trusting the reader to make up their mind. Readers want to learn something and be entertained. They don’t want to be hit on the side of their head with a shovel.
Amb. Eckert: You obviously love Wyoming, the West, and the great outdoors. What makes it so special for you?
Mr. Box: I could write 27 books to answer this question (and I have!). But in a nutshell, I love the landscape, culture, history, and people.
Amb. Eckert: You’ve seen your writing dreams come true. Is there anything else you would love to accomplish?
Mr. Box: I want to keep writing for a long time. And I want to be awash with grandchildren and rising trout.
Amb. Eckert: What’s coming next from C.J. Box?
Mr. Box: I’m about three-quarters through the 21st Joe Pickett novel, called “Dark Sky.” It should be out in March 2021. And another Cassie Dewell novel should be out in August 2021.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
368 pages, hardcover
The “Ambassador of Good Fiction” series will be recommending to our readers a work of fiction, giving information not just about the novel but also what makes its author worth checking out—and, when possible, interviewing that author.
A writer and favorably reviewed novelist himself, Fred J. Eckert has been a Member of Congress and twice served under President Ronald Reagan as a United States Ambassador.