Written by CJ Box — From Alaska‘s misfits to Norwegian serial killers, and all the way to the Russian steppes, there are many flavours of cold climate crime fiction to savour. CJ Box uses his home state of Wyoming as the backdrop for his own brand of wilderness noir. The milieu his game warden hero Joe Pickett works in is full of cowboys and horses, pickup trucks and woodland lodges, plus drunken hunters and guns. Plenty of guns. Guns for shooting pronghorns, guns for shooting elk, guns for shooting bears and, sometimes, guns for shooting men.
And that’s where things get started in the author’s 17th Joe Pickett novel. Our man is in a light aircraft flying over a densely wooded mountainside somewhere near Twelve Sleeps county, Wyoming. A crusty old ne’er-do-well called Dave Farkus has gone missing and Joe and the crew have an infrared setup to see if they can spot his body heat among the trees. When they do see the form of a man on the monitor, he’s joined by a few more shapes, and there are some flashes of light. Gunfire? But the pilot can’t land or circle back because the search plane is out of fuel.
Joe arrives back to Saddlestring, where he works for the state’s wildlife and fisheries department, to news that an old adversary called Dallas Cates has been released from prison. Cates was a rodeo champion from a rough background and he blames Joe for the deaths of his brother and father, and the incarceration of his mother. Brenda Cates was paralysed from the neck down during earlier altercations with Joe Pickett and is in the state’s women’s pen.
CJ Box gives us a wonderful look at the wilds of Wyoming when Joe and a posse of police officers ride on horseback through the snowy woods to find whomever was gunned down. The author knows his horses and you’ll feel like you’re there as Joe rides along chatting to Deputy Spivak. The side-to-side rhythm in the saddle, the crunch of ice under hoof, the scent of the pines and, soon enough, the blood and viscera on the snow – all vividly told.
Pickett is a real character too. It’s no wonder four books in this series have been optioned for film. Outwardly, he’s the strong and silent type. Says little. Gets to the point. You can easily picture him played by the old cowboy in The Big Lebowski, with that deep voice and steady manner. Inside, however, there’s regret, worry and anger. The author winks at us, aware that Pickett has experienced an unrealistic number of scrapes across the 16 prior novels. At one point Pickett himself acknowledges that trouble always finds him.
It turns out that the body in the woods was indeed Dave Farkus. When Spivak pulls Dallas Cates over a day or so later, he finds a rifle matching the ballistics on the slugs in the corpse so it looks like a slam dunk case. However, things are never that simple 100 pages into a crime novel and, like the Colorado River, CJ Box gives us some big swerves and plenty of white water. Cates has some accomplices, one of whom goes after Pickett’s wife and daughters. The other two are former jail buddies and prove to be down, dirty and deadly backwoods criminals. It turns out to be as much a conspiracy against the Picketts as it is a tale of vengeance.
If anything doesn’t click in Vicious Circle, it’s that the tension never quite reaches 10 on the dial. There’s a sub-plot about illegal poaching on Joe’s watch that seems to fizzle out a bit. However, the feel of the North West is in this novel, for sure. Both the beauty of it and the harsher realities of the wilderness. Readers of the series will enjoy the return of Pickett’s long-time friend Nate Romanowski, who’s ready for the fight. You’ll even get a flavour of Wyoming’s politics and law and order, with a few courtroom scenes and some brushes with the new, populist governor.
Though it’s deep in the series, this book can be read standalone, and it comes with our recommendation – especially if you want to broaden your cold climate, wilderness noir bookshelf.
Released 21 March.
Head of Zeus
CFL Rating: 4 Stars