Open Season is the first of a longish series (10 or so) of books about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Open Season was first published in the US in 2001 but it, and the whole of the series so far, is being published in the UK this year by Corvus – one title a month, apparently. (Some of the books were published briefly in the UK by another publisher in the first decade of this century.)
Because Open Season was available for £1 for a Kindle download as part of Amazon’s UK 12 books of Christmas promotion, I decided to give it a go. Although I was not particularly interested in reading about a game warden, I’d enjoyed the previous two standalones by C J Box that I’d read, Three Weeks to Say Goodbye and Blue Heaven, both also published in the UK by Corvus. And, I’m pleased to report, Open Season is very much up to standard.
The two main things going for the novel are the character and situation of Joe Pickett and his family; and the author’s evident love for the countryside of Wyoming and its natural wildlife. To take the first theme first, Joe is a keen, dedicated young ranger, relatively recently qualified and with a pregnant wife and two young daughters. His first job is to look after the region around the small town of Twelve Sleep, which involves checking that hunters are not shooting animals at the wrong time of year, or too many of them, or with the wrong guns, etc. He earns only $26,000 a year, which is not enough for his family to live on, but he loves his job and spends far more than his allotted hours out in the woods and mountains. This leads on to the second theme, in which the author conveys his deep love for the area – he’s sympathetic with all views, and provides a telling account of the upsides and downsides of the conservationists as well as the hunters and those who need to make a living off the land, really drawing the reader in to his passions.
The plot of the novel is kick-started when one of the local good ole boys, who has previously bested Joe in an encounter over a hunting permit, is found dead by the woodpile in the yard of Joe’s house. The sheriff (whose been in post since the year dot) and his men pursue the investigation without involving Joe, much to the younger man’s chagrin as he feels personally involved by the threat to his family (the incident has given one of his daughters nightmares, and indeed the girl may have seen something of what happened). Soon, the sheriff has to include Joe whether he likes it or not, because someone has to trek to a remote camp site to follow a lead. Joe and his ex-colleague Wincey, now ranger of the neighbouring area, undertake this task, which comes to a shocking end when they arrive at the camp.
The novel is fast-paced, although it is not too difficult to work out what is in Joe’s woodpile, or why vested interests are trying to prevent the truth from coming out. Who is representing those interests is the “mystery” of the novel, though there aren’t enough candidates or subplots to make it a surprise when the villain(s) emerge(s). The characters in Joe’s family, particularly his mother-in-law from hell, lift this book well above the average, not least in the appealing nature of the upstanding Joe himself. My main reservation about the book is the same as the one I have about the other two novels I’ve read by this author – too much violence towards the end, this time involving a child and a pregnant woman, which I find unedifying especially when spun out beyond a necessary length.
C J Box at Wikipedia, including the Joe Pickett series listed in chronological (reading) order.