Wyoming mystery writer C.J. Box, a newcomer to the genre, seems to have picked a winner in his character Joe Pickett, a Gary Cooper-style game warden who appears to be the Last Good Man in Wyoming (though not without shortcomings). Pickett plays the role of a common, downtrodden man more than believably in Open Season, a new murder-mystery with an environmentalist twist that's already drawn attention and praise from the likes of fellow authors Tony Hillerman, Lee Child and Loren Estleman.
"I never sat down and thought, 'Now, where's a good new character coming from?'" says Box, a Wyoming native who based Pickett on a composite type. "He's actually like a couple of game wardens I've known. It's really a unique kind of law-enforcement position, and in Wyoming, game wardens are almost autonomous. There are even some who actually pride themselves on never reporting to headquarters in Cheyenne." Box mined the true story of a Wyoming game warden who arrested the head of the state game-and-fish department for fishing without a license by setting up the principled Pickett in a similar situation involving no less than the governor.
"He goes against the type for most mystery books," Box adds. "He's a guy who's married with a family. Most game wardens in Wyoming are in that same situation: They're married, they live in state-owned houses in rural locations, and they move from place to place a lot." And the subtext of a decent man trying to remain true to himself in an indecent world, he notes, parallels an actual dilemma faced by the modern-day West: "Culturally, things keep changing; there's a lot of debate about it. In a lot of character issues, it's often considered better to take the easier way out. Maybe someone looks the other way to achieve his end. While Pickett is no paragon of virtue, he comes across as realistic. Sometimes he screws up, too."
For Box, choosing a Wyoming setting was a no-brainer. "There are just a lot of big stories out there," he says. "I wanted to do something about Wyoming and the northern Rockies from the inside out. There are a lot of books about this area, but I still think a lot of those lack the perspective of someone who actually lives here. A lot of answers are not that easy when you live here, and I think that pertains to all the Western states. Other people seem to make the decisions, and the local perspective isn't always shown, or else all the locals are portrayed as rubes. In truth, some of them are, but some aren't." The book's plot, which involves an endangered species and a proposed gas pipeline, is entangled with Wyoming's own present-day story as a state experiencing a small energy boom while grappling with how to set limits on the progress.
In keeping with the theme, Box, who has a three-book contract, has already put a wrap on Savage Run, the second in the series, though he doesn't expect its release for another year. But here's his tease: "The book opens with an exploding cow and an infamous environmental terrorist going up with it. Nothing is more symbolic of the West than an environmental terrorist going up with an exploding cow." Not to mention it takes a lot of guts.