Off the Grid by C.J. Box

25883822Fiction — print. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016. 371 pgs. Borrowed from a Little Free Library.

It is always a gamble to jump in the middle of a series, and I took a huge gamble by starting Box’s Joe Pickett series with the sixteenth book in the series. In this book, the series’ title character is back working for the state of Wyoming as a game warden while he tries to deal with the insurance company over his daughter’s outstanding medical bills.

After a long day riding the range at the start of hunting season, Pickett is called back out after researchers report a possible encounter between a hunter and a bear. The encounters turns out to be fatal for the hunter, and Pickett is sent across the state as he follows the bear’s possible migratory pattern.

Those events, though, aren’t the start of the story. Rather, the story begins with two agents — feds who refuse to name their agency — arriving on the ranch where Nate Romanowski is hiding out. The feds promise Nate that they will wipe his record clean if he travels to Wyoming’s Red Desert and apprehend an American-raised Saudi with ambitions of committing terrorism.

It is clear that Nate had more than few run-ins with Pickett, but the exact nature of those interactions rely largely on readers starting with the beginning of the series. Since I didn’t, I was rather dropped into the events of the novel and forced to use context clues and guesswork to determine how a lawman like Pickett came to be friends with a lawbreaker like Nate.

Even so, the story quickly pulled me in as Pickett started to follow the bear and Nate travels to the Red Desert. Of course, the Islamic terrorism angle comes across as stereotypical and contrite, especially given the setting of rural Wyoming.

Yet Box flips the narrative on its head (to a certain degree) and, as my mom wrote in her 2017 review, “this one is a rather intense story resulting from the unintended consequences of do-gooders”. One of the supposed terrorist has an intriguing backstory and political viewpoint; the others are still presented with a less than nuanced view.

I did think the intensity was overwrought at times, though. Maybe Nate wouldn’t have cared if one of Pickett’s daughters hadn’t been involved, or maybe Pickett would have turned around and waited for backup. I can’t say for certain since I started this series so late in the game, but her presence came across as unnecessary to the actual plot of the story.

I’m still debating whether or not I’ll go back and start this series from the beginning. With Off the Grid, Box provided a fast-paced read with a nice twist and a beautifully described setting. Yet, while I realize that characters probably aren’t going to be constructed for newcomers when the book is the sixteenth in the series, the characters weren’t nearly as compelling as those in Back of Beyond.

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