These are good times for Wyoming writer C.J. Box. His latest novel, “Force of Nature,” debuted at No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list. Filming may start this fall on a movie based on his work.
Besides a successful series of mystery novels, he is working on a collection of short stories and a stand-alone novel. When he appeared for a book signing in Billings in April, he was just back from a book festival in France.
But he tries not to let any of that distract him.
“I just kind of go to work every day like everybody else,” he told a crowd of about 70 people at Barnes and Noble on April 11.
Clearly, it was a crowd of fans. When he asked for a show of hands, a majority indicated they already had read his new book, “Force of Nature.” Most obviously knew his work and liked it.
That’s despite the fact that “Force of Nature” is a bit of a departure from the other books in Mr. Box’s series about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett. Pickett is still a central character, and most of the other usual characters also are around: Pickett’s loyal wife, his daughters, one of whom is now off at college, his troubled adopted daughter, the usual forces of bureaucratic inertia.
But the focus shifts this time to Nate Romanowski, a mysterious but valuable force of intensity and violence in most of the other books. In most of those books, he has remained largely on the sidelines, showing up in a pinch or subplot, but with little of his intricate past revealed.
Now people with extraordinary skill and determination are out to kill Romanowski, for reasons that remain unrevealed for most of the novel, and he responds in a highly effective and violent manner.
“The body count is very high in this book,” Mr. Box acknowledges.
But so are the rewards. Mr. Box is a meticulous plotter and a master of pacing and scene setting. Whatever Romanowski is up to, it will never take too long to find out – or at least the pages will fly by fast enough that it won’t seem long.
While Romanowski sets out with single-minded purpose to take down his enemies, Pickett is confused and uncertain. He isn’t sure how much to reveal about his mysterious friend, who has lived just outside the edges of the law. He frets about leaving town with his family to protect their safety, and at one point sends officers off on a wild goose chase to protect his daughter.
In the climactic showdown, his truck gets stuck, and he is taken captive by the bad guys. He is nearly as much a burden as a hero.
Mr. Box acknowledges that Joe Pickett has taken on a darker attitude toward life as the years have gone by. His run-ins with bureaucrats and politicians are so frequent that Mr. Box expected to get some pushback from the state employees he has worked with to learn about game warden life.
Instead, he said, they have expressed similar frustrations. And so has Mr. Box: He once drove nine hours, he said, to meet with an official who then failed to show up for the meeting.
“I thought, ‘Something’s going to happen to your character,’” he said.
“Force of Nature” departs from Mr. Box’s recent focus on environmental issues, but that doesn’t mean the focus has changed, he said. Those issues are just too important in this part of the world to ignore, he said.
He added that he tries to provide a balanced view of controversial issues, but one might argue that he doesn’t always succeed. In some novels, his environmentalist characters have been so extreme, and sometimes so murderous, that they shed little light on the issues they care about. In other novels, Joe Pickett has been surprisingly sympathetic for scofflaws seeking to escape civilization.
But Mr. Box seems to have a inexhaustible supply of new ideas to write about. His latest book draws on research into falconry and on the history of Al Qaeda, citing Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Looming Tower.”
His training as a newspaper reporter has helped, he said. Newspapering is more valuable than a master of fine arts degree in learning how the world works and how people talk and act.
And he reads other Western writers, including Thomas McGuane, Cormac McCarthy and the writer he most resembles: Craig Johnson, another Wyoming mystery writer whose latest book is reviewed elsewhere in this issue.
But Mr. Box said that he has read only the first of Mr. Johnson’s novels. With a steady stream of new writing to keep up, not to mention appearances at book stores and European festivals, Mr. Box’s plate stays pretty full.
And that appears to be the way he likes it.