I’ve just finished another Joe Pickett novel by C J Box. I apologise for the somewhat monotonic run of book reviews just at the moment – I am reading books by other authors but either am reviewing them for Euro Crime or not reviewing them (before this latest C J Box I read the whopping Phineas Redux by Anthony Trollope, a marvellously perceptive novel but I feel an amateur review from me of a classic novel would be somewhat pointless). So, here are my thoughts on Free Fire.
The seventh novel about outdoorsman Joe Pickett and his family is the first in which he is not a game warden employed by the Wyoming fish and wildlife service. Joe is honest, unpolitical, and hardworking – hence deeply unpopular with institutional types, not least his bosses, so has ended up without a job. He’s on the radar of the state’s extremely eccentric Governor Rulon, who at the start of this novel offers Joe temporary re-employment if Joe will go as his secret representative to Yellowstone Park to look into a bizarre two-year-old murder case that has recently come back to public attention owing to the release from jail of the presumed perpetrator. Joe reluctantly accepts the offer, partly as his only other option is to continue working as head ranch hand for his mother-in-law’s husband, and partly because he is drawn to return to Yellowstone for reasons that are later made apparent to the reader.
This plot is a dual refreshment for the series, both in taking Joe out of his usual stamping ground of Saddlestring, and in giving him a different job than his usual one of ensuring wildlife regulations are kept. This naturalistic author’s main strengths are in his depiction of Joe’s family dynamics (his wife MaryBeth, an increasingly successful businesswoman, and his rapidly growing-up daughters); and in his mastery of his location. Free Fire is, I think, particularly strong in this last respect. At its core, the author is deeply in love with all aspects of Yellowstone, and succeeds in pulling the reader in to share his enthusiasm and knowledge of the park’s natural history, management, landscape and ominous geology – not an easy task to provide as much detail without being pedagogical, but here it works. The plotting is well-paced and satisfyingly convoluted, though some threads are started but abandoned for no obvious reason.
Most long-running series that I have read come at some point to providing back story for the protagonist(s). Joe is a laconic, even taciturn, individual, so it perhaps is not surprising that we have not learnt anything about his past until this book. Here, the author uses the shift of location to Yellowstone to provide a trigger for Joe’s memories of his many childhood days spent there, and the events that explain much about Joe’s adult persona and attitudes. I felt that Free Fire shifts this series into a different gear, and is a more rounded novel than some of the earlier ones, particularly in its inclusion of sophisticated science, technology and legal issues into the environmental-political themes that are the norm for the series. The novel ends with a resolution of sorts to Joe’s investigation that may bring him wider recognition – but on the other hand probably won’t as the more media-savvy and politically devious layers of command above him move in on his findings. It also ends well-poised for more development in future, as we still don’t know in which direction Joe’s career is moving, although we do know that by the end of Free Fire he has a desperate personal mission to accomplish!
I have not provided a plot summary of Free Fire in this review, but there is a good one at the author’s website, which also links to many independent reviews of the novel. You can also read about Joe Pickett at the author’s website.
My reviews of the previous novels in the series:
Open Season (# 1)
Savage Run (# 2)
Winterkill (# 3)
Trophy Hunt (# 4)
Out of Range (# 5)
In Plain Sight (# 6)