Book review: C.J. Box’s ‘Cold Wind’

March 28, 2011

“Cold Wind” repeatedly poses the question: “What’s right?” That its characters can give only imperfect answers — and that those answers are colored by perceptions and prejudices they are unaware of — makes for a satisfying, if disquieting, read.

This 11th entry in the Joe Pickett series by C.J. Box opens with the murder of wind-power tycoon Earl Alden, who happens to be Joe’s mother-in-law’s latest husband. Out on a trail ride through stands of Wyoming juniper and surrounded by herds of mule deer, Earl is killed by a rifle shot — through his iPod.

With that, the book’s Wild West vs. East Coast worldviews are put into sharp relief. But let readers expecting a straightforward murder tale beware.

Missy, Joe’s mother-in-law, stands accused of Earl’s murder. Joe is certain of her innocence — but why? Do his instincts as a game warden, former gubernatorial aide-de-camp and crime-solver tell him so? Or is he simply unwilling to admit that his wife’s mother, his daughter’s grandmother, could be guilty of a heinous crime?

When Joe sets out to clear Missy and begins investigating Earl’s wind-turbine business, he is stunned to learn that wind, the darling of the green generation, may provide energy less efficiently than oil or coal. A minor character’s rant about why windmills are considered beautiful while oil derricks are eyesores gives Joe — and the reader — a chill. So by the time Joe has a soul-searching conversation with the district attorney and utters, in abject confusion, “I wonder if things are beautiful because of where a person sits,” it’s clear that he can no longer trust anything he sees — or once believed.

Pickett has been compared to Anna Pidgeon, the crime-solving park ranger created by Nevada Barr. Certainly both series are noteworthy as much for their lush depiction of the natural world as for their plots and characters. In fact, Box treats the vast Western landscape as a recurring character — one that, even when it is integral to the unfolding murder and mayhem, promises to outlast petty human disputes. If you’ve never heard coyotes howl through a Yellowstone night or seen the dawn break over the Tetons, “Cold Wind” will serve as a first-rate travelogue. If you have, the novel will bring those experiences back for you without the stomach-churning landing at the Jackson Hole, Wyo., airport.

The mystery unfolds with multiple diversions and switchbacks. Missy Alden has long been a thoroughly detestable character in the series, always deriding Joe as being unworthy of her beloved daughter. (Her daughter’s strenuous disagreement hardly fazes Missy.) So watching the perfectly groomed older woman sweat under the strain of suspicion and arrest is a delicious guilty pleasure for readers — and for Joe.

But that story line has an almost English sitting-room gentility to it compared with the tale that unfolds in parallel, involving one of “Cold Wind’s” most sharply drawn supporting players, Nate Romanowski. For much of the book, Nate, a mountain man with a never fully disclosed black ops past, and his old friend Joe are estranged. This subplot is put to good effect here because at the heart of the Nate-Joe rift is a dispute over how each answered that “What’s right?” question at the end of the previous novel in the series, “Nowhere to Run.”

For all its keen insight and dark beauty, “Cold Wind” has the feel of a bridge novel. By the end, the tumbleweeds of past plotlines have been blown away, and supporting characters have been thinned out like the weak bison in the herd. Box seems to be clearing a wide swath of land on which to construct his next novel, one that promises to be about Nate Romanowski at least as much as it is about Joe Pickett.

Grant is editor of KidsPost.

COLD WIND

By C.J. Box

Putnam: 388 pp. $25.95

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