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26 february 2021
Two wolf packs feature in C.J. Box's thriller: a literal one minding its own predatory business in the wilds of Wyoming, and a figurative wending its pulp-assassin way across the American imaginary. Of the two, the canines are by far the nicest.
Wolf Pack is an immediate sequel to The Disappeared, which makes it the 19th of Box's Joe Pickett novels. I picked this series up very late in the day and am walking it forward. I did try one from the middle of the set: Nowhere to Run (2010), but I found the violence too relentless and extreme. By 2018-19, though these are still Big Sky noirs full of sudden death and dismemberment, the sheer-cruelty level has dropped somewhat; though I have still only read a small sample size.
Wolf Pack builds its suspense steadily and craftily, refracting several different plot lines through its lenses till they converge and catch fire. One of Joe Pickett's game-warden colleagues sees a drone heckling a herd of deer. Joe himself finds some neglected bobcat traps. Joe's daughter Lucy starts dating a newcomer who lives with his dad, grandpa, and some wiseguys in a rural compound that isn't on anybody's GPS. A quartet of flamboyant characters (one of the title wolf packs) shows up in town in conspicuous vehicles with Arizona plates. What can it all portend?
One question posed in Wolf Pack is "How many superhuman drug-cartel killers does it take to match Joe Pickett's falconer sidekick Nate Romanowski?" and I will leave the answer unspoiled. More discussable are the novel's political vectors, which continue the conservative-conservationist bent of The Disappeared. The real bad guys in the book aren't even the cartel assassins but the FBI. Two loathsome feds show up in suits in the middle of the book and start to make life difficult for Joe and his local-law colleagues.
"Just drop the fucking case Pretend it never happened. Just go about your day saving mooses and squirrels and fish, or whatever else the hell it is you do. You do not want to make the wrong choice here." (134)These obnoxious walking clichés have an Orwellian ace in the hole, a federal law that criminalizes lying to them; and since nobody tells the whole truth to anyone they've just met, these G-men can make a federal case out of you opening your mouth or for that matter keeping it shut.
Though when the cards are on the table, come to find that the feds have a noble cause: trying to shut down the drug cartel that employs the Wolf Pack. The government may employ buffoons, but it always has the interests of common Americans at heart, though it must move in mysterious ways to promote those interests. It's a weird, tangled web of motives and attitudes that may or may not cohere once unpacked.
But as I said, Box's politics don't prevent a Joe Pickett novel from being a very exciting yarn. Things get quite hectic in Wolf Pack, and I must say, beyond a certain point (specifically, page 259), the motives of the killers become inexplicable. Our heroes and their families must suddenly become endangered, so one of the chief villains just decides gratuitously to endanger them. We do get a confrontation out of it, so all's good in action terms, if a bit strained on the rationale front.
Box, C.J. Wolf Pack. New York: Putnam's [Penguin Random House], 2019. PS 3552 .O87658W65