Thinking inside the Box
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Now in its second decade and with 12 books, C. J. Box’s Joe Pickett series has proven to be one of the mystery genre’s most dependable. Joe is a game warden (when he’s not on the outs with other government officials) working from little Saddlestring, Wyoming, where he has access to some of the wildest country left in the United States. For an action hero and an outdoorsman, Joe is a surprisingly even-keeled man, not a chest-thumping stereotype. He tries to do the right thing, he has emotional outbursts and makes mistakes, and all of this makes him a believable and sympathetic protagonist, the kind of character that book groups can do something with, not a one-dimensional action figure. With wife Marybeth and daughters Sheridan and Lucy, his more earthy and violent sidekick Nate Romanowski, and several other recurring characters (both friends and villains) that Box has developed over the course of the series, there’s plenty of personal interaction to interest readers. That makes this one of the mystery series that works on a level beyond puzzling plots, a series that books groups can discuss.
In addition, Box’s plots often contain issues of the day–energy extraction vs. environment, endangered species, animal rights, wilderness preservation, government land use, and other concerns–that would create interesting fodder for a book group meeting. All the greatest mystery series involving the outdoor life ask important questions about the needs of individuals versus the needs of the collective.
You might also choose to theme a meeting around outdoor or Western-themed mysteries. Some of the best work in the genre is being done in these books. Groups will find a wealth of good choices, whether it’s Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon mysteries featuring a gutsy park ranger, Tony Hillerman’s modern classic reservation stories with Jim Chee or Joe Leaphorn, Dana Stabenow’s Kate Shugak Alaskan adventures, William Kent Krueger’s Minnesota-set Cork O’ Connor stories, Steve Hamilton’s icy upper Michigan Peninsula series with Alex McKnight, Steven F. Havill’s Bill Gastner series set in Posadas County, New Mexico, James D. Doss’s Charlie Moon mysteries, or Paul Doiron’s new series about Maine game warden Mike Bowditch, to name just a few. You could even stick with mysteries from one state, as Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire mysteries and Margaret Coel’s Wind River Reservation series have also both had long successful runs in Wyoming.