Force of Nature
by C.J. Box
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Every year in May, give or take a few months either way, the spring thaw works up the slopes of Wyoming’s Bighorns and Tetons to melt the snow cover and refresh some of the finest sport fishing rivers in the United States. For the last decade, each spring has also brought forth another novel from Wyoming native C.J. Box to feed our curiosity about Game Warden Joe Pickett, the latest crimes in his vast patrol sector, his loyal friend Nate Romanowski, and frequent adversary Sheriff Kyle McLanahan. This March, Force of Nature joins the array to bring the series to a neat dozen, and that’s a good thing because, frankly, I find a new Box thriller to be more refreshing than any spring rain.
C.J. Box is not your typical Iowa Writers Workshop graduate. Box (Charles “Chuck” James Box to his parents) often wears his black Stetson on book tours and has to scrape the horseshit off his boots and accent to be presentable. A man of the land, he has done his time working the ranches and fishing camps of Wyoming and still helps out at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo. Before publishing his first Joe Pickett novel, Open Season, in 2001––after years of hustling agents to represent it to publishers––he worked for his small town newspaper and raised three girls. In short, Box is a pretty regular guy who just happened to create one of the most popular and enduring crime novel series of the new century.
Crime stories have been around forever (the Bible’s tales of lawbreaking Adam and Eve kicked it all off and then we had Cain and Abel going mano-a-mano…and things went exponentially downhill from there), but the creation of a series of crime novels featuring the same primary protagonist is a relatively new phenomenon.
The First Detectives: The Hardy Boys
The 1927 launch of the Hardy Boys series of detective stories by the pseudonymous Franklin W. Dixon might claim credit as the first in the United States. Generations of boys devoured the adventures of Frank and Joe…and still do, as the series has been reborn numerous times in numerous formats with a nod to cleaning up the various socially and politically awkward prejudices through the decades.
The adult crime novel series probably owes its origin to Raymond Chandler and his Phillip Marlow novels of the late 30s. They are also the probable source of the long denigration of crime novels by “proper” readers and even the not-so-proper literary academics and critics.Marlowe was not a nice guy and he did not-so-nice things to crooks and murderers. He drank whiskey from the bottle and enjoyed women (even if only to admire a long leg or perky bosom). Chandler’s paperback “pulps” with their lurid covers gave crime series a lowbrow reputation. If an author chose to descend into the cesspool of crime fiction, his publisher often made him use a pseudonym.
Bond, James Bond
When Ian Fleming introduced his James Bond series in 1953, the crime series became a money-making bonanza. That commercial success jumped the pond, and in the 1970s the United States launched its own twist on the crime fiction series protagonist with Robert Parker’s Spenser series. Parker abandoned his PhD in literature and created his famous one name detective Spenser.
With his witty repartee, his sidekick Hawk for muscle, and his girlfriend Susan for love, advice, and cooking, Spenser worked his Boston turf righting wrongs for 39 books before he died. Like the Hardy Boys series (which saw several different authors over the years) the Spenser series seems set to continue with others stepping in for Parker. The crime series novel is now very much the mainstream; it seems that everybody wants to write one. Once Parker opened the door, New York publishers couldn’t wait to find their own crime series authors.
A Fan’s Confession
As something of a fan, my bookshelves are full of them. The criteria are simple: a loner hero, a feet-on-the-street familiarity with a city, and a gift for dialogue. The plot almost doesn’t matter. A quick glance around my house finds dozens of authors of crime series novels: Michael Connelly, Loren Estleman, James Sallis, Steve Hamilton, George Pelecanos, Tim Dorsey, James W. Hall, Lawrence Block, Jonathan Valin, Laura Lippman, James Lee Burke, Carl Hiaasen, Ken Bruen, Barry Eisler, Chuck Logan, D.W. Buffa, John Burdett, Walter Mosley, Laurence Shames, K.C. Constantine, Stephen Greenleaf, G.M. Ford, Tom Kakonis, and of course, C.J. Box. And no collection is complete without Michael Harvey, Bryan Gruley and Sean Chercover from Chicago’s own Outfit collective.
What is it with our attraction to the crime novel series…or is it just me?
One is Never Enough
Actually, one could make the case that we like all of our entertainment in some kind of repeating series of adventures starring the same characters. Forget crime for a moment and think of Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Chronicles of Narnia for young readers; or the many adult series authors from Proust to McMurtry in fiction and Churchill to Caro in history and biography. Or better yet, look at the movies that draw us away from our various home screens: Men in Black, Mission Impossible, Die Hard, Fast and Furious, James Bond again…you know which ones they are. And I need hardly even mention TV…I mean, there are so many “Law and Order” episodes that they have been showing reruns for years and many of us can’t even tell which ones we have already seen.
Again, what gives us so much pleasure in a series? Primarily it is because we find it hard to make friends in the real world (as Mark Twain wrote: “When you need a friend, it’s too late to make one.”) and maybe just as hard in the fictional world, so when we find one, we hang on. A well created character is pleasant company.
We love the familiar. Why investigate the whole new world of some long “stand alone” novel when we can ease right into the next book from one of our favorite series? Short stories don’t sell because they frequently don’t give us enough time to get really familiar with the characters and setting. We’re lazy that way. We want to get some payback for the time we invest in our reading; we want to know what happens to our friends next.
Growing Old With Joe Pickett
Which brings me back to C.J. Box’s newest Joe Pickett novel. Throughout the series we have watched Joe’s family age and mature. His wife, Marybeth, is smarter than Joe in many ways and reins in his righteous indignation when necessary. Their two girls, Sheridan and Lucy, have grown up in the simple house of a Wyoming Warden and gone to the local public school. Marybeth and Joe have survived the random challenges of child-rearing and produced pretty good kids who have the appropriate attachment and distance from their parents. Since Joe gets into some kind of crime mess in every book, the family has seen its share of danger, death, fear, and trouble. They are survivors.
Heroes Need Sidekicks
One reason Joe and his family have survived so long and so well is the protection of his friend Nate Romanowski. He appears in all the books as a strange loner who lives on the land and trains falcons…and packs a big .50 caliber pistol he is not afraid to use. Joe saved Nate’s life in an early volume, and Nate has been there for him and his family ever since. But after often riding in to rescue Joe, he always mysteriously disappears to his latest sanctuary…until now.
Force of Nature is really Nate’s book. It opens with three local thugs trying to kill him while he is duck hunting. Although he draws fast enough to kill them first, he finds himself in the grip of a well-engineered assassination scheme by rogue government super-secret covert killers. For the first time Nate needs Joe more than Joe needs him; and for the first time, we learn of Nate’s past and why he is the way he is.
That’s the beauty of a well-done and rich series. The world is familiar, but like our own worlds, it is always in flux. The pleasure and enlightenment comes from watching our friends handle the latest twists and turns in their lives. To steal a partial line from Robert Frost, one can do worse than be a reader of a good crime series. If Box is new to you, by all means, give him a try. If you already are a fan, his new one is one of his best and goes a long way towards filling in the back story of Nate Romanowski.