Many Americans aren't that familiar with Wyoming, except perhaps for Yellowstone National Park. In C.J. Box's thrillers, the Cowboy State is a featured character and you get to know its thickly forested mountains, its windy plains and its frontierlike towns.
In "Stone Cold," the latest installment in the Joe Pickett series (Joe being a game warden who finds trouble as easily as a grizzly finds grubs), Box takes readers to one of the most remote places of his beloved home state: the northeast corner that has been bypassed by the economy as well as many travelers.
"Stone Cold"By C.J. Box
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 384 pages, $26.95, cjbox.net/
Pickett is sent by the governor on an undercover mission to fictional Medicine Wheel County (maybe the author decided not to use the real name of Crook County because almost everyone in the novel there is, well, a crook). Making a repeat appearance in the opening scenes is Pickett's buddy, former special forces operative Nate Romanowski, who is on a mission to kill a bad guy -- targeting not a jihadist but a shady American millionaire. Nate seems to have crossed a line, but can he get back onto the right side?
The author paints vivid pictures of the Black Hills, which unknown to a lot of people exist in Wyoming as well as in South Dakota, and you can feel the elements -- a snowstorm descending on the mountains, the bitter cold. Landscape and weather are important features of Wyoming (get stuck for hours in a ground blizzard on I-80 and watch an antelope fall dead at your feet from hunger and exhaustion and you'll know what I mean), and Box depicts these well. He's also got a B plot rolling when Pickett's daughter, a student at the University of Wyoming, has to deal with a creepy potential school-shooter in her dorm.
Box weaves some history into this novel, the 14th in the Pickett franchise. We learn that the Sundance Kid got his name from the town of the same name in northeast Wyoming. Before he hooked up with Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, he was arrested in Sundance for stealing a horse, a saddle and a gun.
The area, at least in the novel, is on the skids, mining and logging having played out. So the residents are subsisting mostly on government benefits and are more susceptible to collaborating with a rich guy who shows up buying property and influence, and who might be organizing assassinations of wealthy but dubious characters for big payoffs.
It's an accessible, quick and fun read, though the characters can get long-winded at times with a lot of background information jammed into dialogue. There are precious bits scattered in the story like so many nuggets of Black Hills gold: Nate not wanting to be involved with a woman who is coming on to him, but also not being able to resist her laugh, her smile and her "beguilingly musical" voice. Sounds like a person falling in love, which is hard to capture in any genre.