Article published on October 23, 2011.
When only the best crime fiction will do, I reach for a volume of CJ Box. Thankfully, Corvus have spent all of 2011 bringing Box’s substantial back catalogue to British shores, so there are plenty to choose from.
In Plain Sight is the sixth in the Joe Pickett series, bringing with it one of the darkest chapters in the ongoing saga of the beleaguered Wyoming game warden. In this outing, Pickett is tormented by an old enemy who will stop at nothing to wreak his revenge, targeting not just Joe but those close to him. All this occurs against the backdrop of a blood feud in Saddlestring. When eccentric ranch owner Opal Scarlett goes missing, her eldest offspring waste no time in drawing battle lines across the ranch. Their influence in local society is so entrenched that soon not just the ranch, but the entire community outside is riven by the Scarlett’s conflict. As the hostility escalates, Joe is forced to take drastic steps to protect himself and his family.
As ever, Box’s tale is riddled with the kind of detail that entices the reader to book the next flight to Jackson Hole Airport. The vast, open country is lovingly described, as are the wildlife and people of Box‘s home state. However, as much as In Plain Sight is a tale of rural Wyoming, it also has a deeper resonance. Beyond the Grand Tetons, the descriptions of ranch life, and the always-enlightening details of Pickett’s existence as a game warden, there are underlying themes which are transferable to any community or location. Feuding brothers are nothing new in fiction (Cain and Abel would probably agree on that one), but the Scarlett’s battle incorporates so much more. Concepts of birthright, dynastic burdens, land ownership and community are ever-present, bubbling under the surface. In Plain Sight is shot through with the author’s love of his homeland, but could be transplanted to anywhere else on earth without losing its thematic integrity. On the strength of this outing, it’s easy to understand how CJ Box has found himself translated into 25 languages.
As ever, Joe Pickett is an exceptional protagonist. Beset by conflict on all sides, be it from his henpecking mother-in-law, his mysterious tormentor, or his intentionally obstructive boss, he responds with dignity and determination. He is always in jeopardy, but doesn’t always triumph. He is bested in a bar room confrontation, over-ruled by his boss, and outwitted by his enemy. Despite all this though, he holds firmly to his principles, and is sustained by the love for, and of, his family.
The Pickett family, particularly Joe’s wife Marybeth, are one of the greatest strengths of In Plain Sight. Against the hyper-masculine backdrop of ranch-hands, game wardens and local politics, it would be easy for a female character to slip into submissive, wallflowery cliché; not Marybeth Pickett. She is intelligent, dedicated and extremely perceptive. She is not just a foil for Joe, she is his confidante, his consigliere, and indeed is the main breadwinner in the Pickett household. Marybeth Pickett is not the great woman behind the great man, instead she stands proudly at his side.
As such, In Plain Sight has it all. Sublime characterisation, superb use of place, a truly masterful ear for themes, and an exceptional eye for detail. And that‘s not all; there is enough dark and bloody action in the finale to sate even the most bloodthirsty crime fan. In short, there really is no excuse for not getting acquainted with the phenomenon that is CJ Box.