Three-Inch Teeth by CJ Box 

3 Mins read
Three-Inch Teeth by CJ Box front cover

There’s rural noir and then there’s the territory multi-award winning bestseller CJ Box operates in – the wilds of northern Wyoming. His novels are wilderness tales. Can we say wilderness noir? The reader numbers don’t lie – people love his Joe Pickett character and Paramount+ is producing a series based on the books. Three-Inch Teeth is latest novel in the series – can it still be fresh, 24 books in?

Clay Hutmacher is fishing Twelve Sleep River when he’s attacked by a huge bear, there’s no way to defend himself and he can’t outrun a grizzly. When he doesn’t return, home Clay’s father along with prospective father-in-law Joe Pickett go looking. What they find is devastating for the community. They form a Predator Attack Team to catch the killer bear before a Jaws-style public hunt gets underway. It’s elk season and there are lots of guns out there in the forest. 

Meanwhile, former rodeo champion and very mean hombre Dallas Cates is released by Wyoming State Penitentiary after a long-stretch. He headed up the white clan, the WOODS, on the inside. Cates has a long memory and has kept a list of the people he holds responsible for him being inside and for his family’s deaths. The names are tattooed on his body. As a last snub, Corrections Officer Winter has stolen his precious championship belt so Cates adds him to that list. Revenge is the only thing on Cates’ mind, so CO Winter and his trial lawyer, the judge, the county prosecutor and Joe and his friend Nate are all fair game.  

When Cates sees reports of the grizzly attack on the television he gets an idea. To cross names off his list without arousing the suspicions of the other intended victims, he will disguise his kills as bear attacks. And so it begins… CO Winter is the first to pay for crossing Cates and, for the others, the reckoning is coming.

The early focus of the novel is more on establishing the bear hunt than Cates – and it’s a trek through a lifestyle and environment we don’t often see, far away from the urban heartlands. It’s great exploring the wild landscape and the hunt for the bear is a thriller in its own right. Gradually, the story of Dallas Cates and his associates, including a couple of ex-con pals, feeds into the story. While Joe, his daughter Sheridan and the locals are dealing with the aftermath of the fatal bear attack, Cates is ramping up his campaign of vengeance. 

Cates is a cold, brutal creation. We are constantly wary of his violence, and his sidekicks bring their own problems to the hunt. Then there’s Bobbi Johnson, a young woman whose life went off the rails a while back. She spent time inside and she came out determined to leave Wyoming behind. Johnson targeted Cates as her ticket out. She wrote to him in jail, developed a relationship and is waiting outside the penitentiary when he is released. She has visions of collecting her sister and children and heading to California for a new start. Only Cates has his agenda and that means heading north not west for starters. Cates and Johnson are the focus of much of the novel and they’re a great pairing – edgy and unpredictable. How much of what either says is honest and how much is scheming for what they really want? 

The contrast between the harshness of the natural world and man-made brutality is upfront, and as a Wyoming rancher Box really knows his stuff. The violence that can be seen is visceral but a lot of it is off page and cleverly it’s about us readers visualising, contextualising for ourselves. 

The idea of a man faking bear attacks to cover his crimes requires a lot of crafty plotting for plausibility and Box pulls it off without losing us in detail or killing the intensity of the story. Naturally, the two plot lines coalesce but the strands are equally exciting and vibrant with character-driven factors, for instance Sheridan’s feelings after Clay dies. There is never a dull moment.

So has Box kept it fresh? On balance – yes. Joe is a pull for regular Box fans but the dynamism of the plot, the intriguing bad guys and the random factor of a wild, killer bear, make this novel an entertaining read. You might prefer a more direct murder mystery and may find this authentic wildness too full on, particularly the bear hunt, but I was certainly carried along by it. This is a novel of suspense – the constant wondering what will happen because of an unpredictable grizzly and an unpredictable criminal. 

Also see The Bramble and the Rose by Tom Bouman set in Wild Thyme, Pennsylvania.

Head of Zeus 

CFL Rating: 4 Stars 

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