Review: C J Box – Out of Range

Ever since the death of the wonderful Tony Hillerman, I’ve been looking for a writer to fill the gap left by the end of the Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series. Nevada Barr is a writer that I am now enjoying although her books are fairly difficult to get hold of in the UK. However, while I was at the Crime Writing festival in Harrogate, I picked up a second-hand copy of C J Box’s Out of Range in one of the town’s bookshops and was immediately transported to the Wyoming landscape. The mixture of setting, well constructed plot and engaging characters was a delight to read.

Wyoming game warden, Joe Pickett, is attending his mother-in-law’s wedding to a local rancher when he hears the news that fellow warden and friend Will Jensen, has committed suicide. Pickett is asked to temporarily take on the man’s duties which means leaving his wife and family behind and heading to the town of Jackson Hole which unlike Pickett’s hometown of Saddlestring is a hotbed of political and bureaucratic machinations. Pickett is surprised to hear about Will’s drinking and violent temper in the weeks leading up to his death and starts to do a bit of digging around the death. Meanwhile, Marybeth left in Saddlestring with their two children is receiving silent phone calls and asks family friend Nate Romanowski to help out.

I’m often wary about picking up books mid series as character development can be a key part of these slow burning series. In Out of Range, which is the fifth book in the series, there has clearly been plenty of backstory developed for the characters over previous books. The marriage of Marybeth’s sassy mother, who has managed to snare a wealthy rancher was lovely to read about and and her relationship with her son-in-law Joe is an enjoyably prickly one. Nevertheless coming new to the series I didn’t feel hampered by my lack of knowledge of the history of the relationship, rather it made me want to go back and read more of Box’s earlier books.

There is an interesting portrait of a marriage in the book. Joe and Marybeth are suffering form the pressures felt by any couple with young children and busy careers. As Joe’s new role force the couple to live in separate houses, they both struggle with feelings of resentment and loneliness and also attraction to other people. In Joe’s case, this attraction is a major plot line, but Box cleverly balances this out with Marybeth’s increasing reliance on Nate and how this attraction is picked up by her teenage daughter.

As you would expect, depictions of the Wyoming landscape are a major draw of this book. Box highlights the isolation felt by the State’s rangers and adds another layer in the book by making the threat closer to home. It’s a different landscape of course, to Hillerman’s Arizona desert but I found the way in which the setting is integrated into the plot to be very similar. I enjoyed my introcution to Box’s writing and I’m hoping to read other books, hopefully earlier in the series.

Other reviews can be found at Petrona and Is it Me?

The author’s website is here.

Review: Nevada Barr – Track of the Cat

I was first introduced to Tony Hillerman by a fellow reviewer, Sylvia Dixon, and quickly became absorbed by the depiction of life on the Navaho reservation on the Arizona/Utah border. Hillerman was a master at anchoring the crimes he described within the landscape, so much so that you often couldn’t imagine the felonies occurring anywhere else. Since Hillerman’s death, I’ve been looking for a writer who brings this magnificent landscape to life and finally, after reading Track of the Cat, I’ve discovered the delights of Nevada Barr.

Barr is a former national park ranger whose jobs included a stint at the Guadaloupe Mountains National Park where her first book is set. Anna Pigeon is a ranger assigned to her first job patrolling the remote West Texas countryside. When she finds a colleague seemingly mauled to death by a mountain lion, Anna is concerned that an overreaction by locals will lead to a cull of these protected creatures. However, on further scrutiny, it appears that the death is more complex that it initially seems and when another ranger goes missing it is clear that something is amiss in the national park.

The writer’s experience of working as a park ranger has proved invaluable in bringing this book to life. The narrative is awash with wonderful descriptions of the harsh but beautiful landscape and the excruciating heat capable of consuming you in minutes. Sensibly, like Hillerman used to, Nevada Barr roots the murder in the essence of the landscape and it is unclear whether animals or humans are responsible for the deaths. Some of the practicalities of managing such a huge park play an important role in the plotting, for example, helicopters which could be used to search for the missing ranger are being used for a crisis elsewhere.

The character of Anna Pigeon is given plenty of back story in this debut novel. She is a widow in her late thirties whose experience of sudden death has propelled her into an alternative career and given her enough experience to be able to face the realities of bereavement.  Other characters are also interesting with lives more complex than appearances might suggest. There is an excellent denouement with the reader tantalizingly left to decide what judgement is meted out.

I thought this book an excellent start to a series that I’m looking forward to reading. Future books are set in other national parks so I can look forward to a trip around the wilds of the United States.