There remain in the New West a select few old-school Westerners on whom a Stetson truly fits. Perennial New York Times-bestselling mystery/thriller author and Wyoming native son C.J. Box is one.
Box’s Stetson-wearing bonafides derive primarily from his series of 15 mysteries featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, a leather-tough and highly moral — though often-bumbling — family man. Box’s new stand-alone thriller, “Badlands,” proves his Stetson bonafides as well, even as he stretches himself and his readers beyond the Pickett safety net by featuring the thoughts and world views of a frumpy, whip-smart female law officer and a mentally challenged 12-year-old boy.
Though Southwest Colorado’s oil-fracking boom has largely gone bust, area readers will recognize and easily relate to “Badlands’” setting: the fracking boomtown of Grimstad, N.D. Box is known for his ability to portray a strong sense of place in his Pickett mysteries. Despite decamping from warden Pickett’s familiar Wyoming mountains for the windswept High Plains, Box paints the fictional town of Grimstad with a knowing brush. Readers see, feel and even smell Grimstad’s oil-worker-packed strip joints, its truck-clogged, diesel-fumed streets, and its overpriced, ant-colony-like rental units.
As the oil money really begins to flow in Grimstad, ruthless West Coast criminals arrive to take what they see as their share. Dead bodies and tattooed body parts accumulate around town, leading newly hired Bakken County deputy sheriff Cassie Dewel down one dark hole after another in pursuit of the evil-doers. When adolescent paper boy Kyle Westergaard happens upon a bagful of the criminals’ cash and drugs, he and Dewel team up in a desperate attempt to save Kyle’s troubled mother.
The wisest of old-school Westerners here in Southwest Colorado and beyond are capable of welcome surprise — coming to understand and empathize with LGBT issues, perhaps, or recognizing that, yes, some taxes, and the communal perks those taxes fund, are A-OK. In the same way, Box’s willingness to risk moving beyond Pickett and his Wyoming back yard to bring to life characters of various ages and genders in a fresh and frightening new locale makes “Badlands” a solid addition to his oeuvre, and marks Box as a New Old Westerner of the highest authorial order.
The risk Box took when he released his first stand-alone thriller, 2008’s “Blue Heaven,” paid off when it won the Edgar Award for Best Novel, the top annual prize of the Mystery Writers of America. Those who read “Badlands” will enjoy keeping an eye out for similar awards Box’s fifth stand-alone effort is sure to garner.
Scott Graham is the National Outdoor Book Award-winning author of seven books, most recently “Mountain Rampage” (Torrey House Press), the second installment in the National Park Mystery Series. Visit him at scottfranklingraham.com.