Winterkill by C.J. Box: A review
C.J. Box is a good story-teller. He keeps it simple - good guys vs. bad guys. The only reliably good guy in his stories is Game Warden Joe Pickett. Most everyone else is venal and indifferent to the lives of others.
The worst of the bad guys are always federal employees, usually those who work for the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and occasionally, as in this book, the F.B.I. Those who believe that individual rights are paramount and must never be infringed upon by a government representing a larger society are always portrayed very sympathetically.
In this story, for example, we have a group of survivalists who have arrived in the Bighorn Mountains from all over the country and are camping on federal lands. Many of these people are refugees from the firestorms of Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the Montana Freemen. They hate the federal government.
When a local forest service supervisor is killed, suspicion falls in the direction of those who hate the government, but then a local recluse, a falconer who is also a renegade former Special Ops for the hated feds, is found to have the kind of bow and arrows that were used to kill the man and he is arrested for the crime.
Soon, though, another local federal employee is lured into an accident and left to die in a heavy snowstorm. He gets free and wanders onto the road where he is accidentally hit by Joe Pickett in his truck. Joe takes him to the hospital with serious injuries both from the earlier assault and from his collision with the truck.
The falconer who was arrested for the original murder uses his one phone call to contact Joe. He is convinced that Pickett is a man he can trust and he asks two favors of him - one to take care of his birds and, two, to find out who actually killed the forest service supervisor and free him from jail. Joe finds that he believes Nate the falconer's story and he sets out to fulfill his promises.
Meantime, a special federal investigative unit has arrived in town to look into the "murder and assaults" of federal employees. It is headed by an insanely evil woman who is assisted by a couple of psycho F.B.I. agents. You know right away that nothing good is going to come of this.
Joe also learns that the birth mother of his and wife MaryBeth's foster daughter April Keeley is with the survivalist group in the mountains. He and MaryBeth had been trying to adopt April who has lived with them for three years. Now they are afraid that the irresponsible mother who abandoned her in the first place will try to take her back.
All of these family concerns weigh on Joe Pickett's mind as he goes about trying to do his job and trying to bring justice in a place where it often seems that political concerns about what will advance the careers of local, state, and federal officials take precedence over everything.
Box's narrative is a real page-turner. At a certain point, I found that I just had to know how it all turned out and so I read straight through, even though there were other things that I needed to be doing. In the Pickett family, he creates characters that we care very much about and that we want to see happy, but we strongly suspect that that just isn't going to happen. This creates the tension that keeps us turning pages.
As a reader, although I enjoy the books in the series, I could wish that his portrayal of some characters, the federal employees, for example, was a bit more nuanced. My experience of federal employees is that generally they are members of the community who usually share the values of that community and are just doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Narratives like Box's feed into the demonizing of those people which is, unfortunately, a popular blood sport in some segments of our society. I find it unworthy of a fine writer.