Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett finds the local U.S. Forest Service manager drunk and shooting elk like crazy. Joe arrests him, but the man escapes and by the time Joe catches up with him, he’s been murdered. Joe has to solve the crime since the local sheriff is an incompetent lout and arrests the wrong man. His deputy is even worse. Meanwhile Joe’s adopted daughter is imperiled by the return of her natural mother. As with his first two Pickett novels, Box portrays the stark majesty of Wyoming well and has created a likeable All-American do-goody main character. The plot is full of action and cleverly constructed, only I can only bring myself to give it three stars. In fact, I could barely finish it. Why?
Because of the near-vitriolic anti-government sentiment that only gets worse throughout the book. The Joe-Pickett-against-the-world thing just got to be too much. It seems that Joe is the only government worker in the whole world who is decent and hard-working. The local sheriff is lazy, mean, and incompetent. [My grandfather was a sheriff in Wyoming and was kind and beloved by the citizens. I know; I was living with him in the courthouse as a 5-year-old when he died]. The Forest Service victim is a drunkard and animal slaughterer. His boss, a regional manager, is an insane egomaniacal woman who blithely lets (or causes) her dog to be run over by a piece of heavy machinery and is itching for a shootout with the Sovereign Citizens group camping nearby. She only gets worse throughout the book, too. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and USFS types are all lazy, arrogant, and don’t work a second past 5:00. Worst of all, the FBI agents brought on scene are chain-smoking HRT members who were at Ruby Ridge and Waco and take sadistic pleasure in killing people. [Now, as an ex-FBI agent I’m beginning to feel some piling on here]. The local County Attorney seems to have his heart in the right place, but he’s portrayed as ineffectual. The disgustingly obese judge will give a woman whatever court order she wants in exchange for sex. So only the game wardens are the good guys? Oh wait! I forgot – no they’re a bunch of corrupt crooks, too, as portrayed in the first book. Oh yes, anyone with a southern accent is evil and stupid, too.
So who are the good guys, if any? Of course, the swastika-wielding gun-toting white supremacist sovereign citizens. Well, not quite good guys, but portrayed almost sympathetically. I’m perplexed by this anti-government direction in the writing since Joe Pickett is a government employee. Okay, plenty of crime novelists and TV writers like to stick pins in the FBI, making them out as pompous or arrogant, hogging glory. I’m used to that and it doesn’t bother me. I even do a bit of that in my own novels, although it’s confined to the top brass. But there are so many things wrong with the portrayal in this book on all levels it’s beyond literary license. A chain-smoking HRT member? They’re all fitness nuts. The FBI taking orders from a Forest Service manager? It’s laughable. In my 25-year career I saw nothing but cooperation and friendly relations between police and FBI, with the exception of one case (in which the FBI rescued a kidnap victim, arrested both kidnappers, and recovered the ransom much to the annoyance of the local police). Worst of all, a sadistic FBI agent who took pleasure in killing people? Not in my FBI. Okay, so forget my gripes on that account; maybe I’m not objective.
The thing that got to me more than anything else was the way it seemed to be taken for granted that the white supremacist narrative was accurate on things like Ruby Ridge and Waco. What’s next, Timothy McVeigh’s a hero for blowing up the day care center and hundreds of other innocents in Oklahoma City? David Koresh is a true prophet despite burning down his own parishioners? The Unabomber? Jim Jones? ISIS? This kind of story-telling is troubling. Sure, most people will see it as just the fiction that it is, but it only takes a tiny fraction of one percent to buy into it to end up with the self-styled vigilantism that justifies in someone’s mind the mass killing of random innocent people. It’s possible to make Pickett a good guy without making everyone else a scumbag.