The more books I read, the more I realize that being an author is a perilous avocation, particularly if you want to write a series. On one hand, you have to keep your books fresh and unpredictable. On the other, you have to keep the elements in place that initially drew readers to your body of work. It must be a precarious balancing act and often, a thankless one.
Take John Sandford, for instance. For years, Evaney From Miami kept bugging me to read the Lucas Davenport series. Finally in May of 2012, I grabbed, “Rules of Prey,” and tucked in. I was hooked!
It wasn’t that Lucas was all that different from many of his literary counterparts. At least, not on the surface. Renegade cop who plays by his own rules? Check. The thing that drew me to Lucas was the fact that he shamelessly flaunted his methods for criminals and his peers alike. By the end of the first novel, it became clear that, while Lucas displayed many of the trappings of his contemporaries, he had (or didn’t have) something that the likes of Harry Bosch, Peter Decker and J. P. Beaumont all possessed. A conscience. Sandford verified this in an interview with the New York Post in 2002, in which he confirmed the fact that Davenport was a sociopath.
This literary twist fascinated me. Here was a guy who cloaked himself in the trappings of upscale civilization (a house, Italian suits and a Porsche, for God sake!), yet he was a thinly-veiled animal underneath.
Each of the Davenport novels contains the word, prey. Yet, as you read, you quickly come to question who exactly is the prey and who is the predator. Is the predator a lawyer who leaves a written rule at the scene of each kill, a crazed Native-American seeking revenge, a sadistic surgeon who steals the eyes of his victims, or a child molester hidden deep in the frozen Wisconsin woods? Or, is the real predator a man who uses his badge only for cover, but who could care less about the rule of law, preferring the thrill of the game to anything else?
This was the Lucas Davenport I fell in love with five years ago. Sadly, this was the Lucas Davenport whom John Sandford could not sustain for more than 10 novels. Eventually, much to my dismay, Lucas mellowed out. He got married, adopted a daughter, had a couple more kids and began hopping from one employer to another in search of villains. Gone was the solitary, nocturnal predator who prowled the streets of Minneapolis playing cat-and-mouse with twisted bikers, warped kidnappers and southern hitwomen. In his place was a more conventional crimebuster who was chasing more conventional villains. When I found myself reading a Lucas Davenport novel that involved quilting, I knew it was time for me to stop living in denial and move on.
In fairness, John Sandford is doing what I only dream about. He’s now writing three series and raking in the bucks, while I eek out blog entries during stolen moments in a control room. Yet, a relationship exists between author and reader, much like the one between predator and prey. Whether it is antagonistic or not, an inherent understanding is present that allows the reader to criticize the author. This knowledge allows me to stem the guilt that I, as a non-sociopath, might feel at criticizing a writer whom I once loved.
As I said, I think maintaining a series is probably tough. Many excellent scribes fall prey to the pitfalls of time. Nelson DeMille is another example. John Corey is a great character, if not original. He’s another rogue cop who always knows better than his superiors, but what made him special was his razor-like wit. When he stopped being funny on a consistent basis, I quit reading.
Maybe Dennis Lehane has a point, I thought as I ran through the Kenzie-Gennaro private eye novels in the autumn of 2015. There are only six. Less is more, right?
To quote Waylon Jennings, “Wrong!” Lehane appears to be done with the tumultuous Boston couple, having chosen to move on to historical American epics. This was probably a good thing as the series was hit-and-miss for me and their final adventure, “Moonlight Mile,” left me with a pretty sizeable meh feeling.
All of this was on my mind as I started the Joe Pickett series, by C. J. Box, in May of last year. Sixteen novels about a Wyoming game warden who solves crimes, I thought? Whatever.
Joe Pickett’s first outing, “Open Season,” left me impressed. A guy drops dead on Joe’s woodpile after being shot. His cute little daughters subsequently discover a mysterious animal hiding in said woodpile. Soon, more bodies start falling and Joe and his family find themselves smack in the middle of a power struggle between the town’s corrupt sheriff, Joe’s former boss and environmentalists with an agenda.
That was great. I bet he can’t do it again, I foolishly thought.
“Savage Run,” is about eco terrorists, exploding cows and a covert range war involving a secret cattleman’s association.
Can we go three for three, I wondered.
“Winter Kill,” involves a group of anti-government separatists, an overzealous FBI director and a man wrongly accused of murder. The man, Nate Romanowski, is a mysterious fellow who wears a pony tail, loves falcons and has a shadowy Special Forces background.
Great, I mused. Mitch Rapp, the nature boy version. But where Mitch Rapp is too often one-dimensional, Nate (a running character who turns out to be Joe’s best friend), is written in a far more nuanced and layered way. As the novels progress and we learn more about Nate, we come to realize that he carries a lot of baggage over the things he’s done in his past.
Let me skip to the part where I tell you that Mr. Box just published his seventeenth Joe Pickett novel, “Vicious Circle,” a few days ago. I am sneaking chunks of it at work when I should be tending to business, it’s that good. Mr. Box is the only author I’ve ever read who has never written a novel in a series that has disappointed me. This includes, not only his entire Pickett series, but his various stand-alone novels such as, “Blue Heaven,” “Three Weeks to Say Goodbye,” and “The Highway.”
One of the elements that makes Box’s novels so compelling is the setting. Michael Connelly knows the streets of Los Angeles like the back of his hand. So does George Pelecanos in Baltimore, or Dennis Lehane in Boston. They have intimate knowledge of the world in which their characters flourish.
C. J. Box is a native of Wyoming and currently resides there with his family. When he writes about Joe Pickett exploring the Big Horn Mountains on horseback, or Nate Romanowski swimming naked in the Yellow Stone River, his attention to detail lends a necessary tint of authenticity to the literary landscape.
But more than that, Box paints an accurate picture of the average citizen of the Cowboy State. The plight of ranchers in the face of land developers, the clash of western values with the bureaucratic mindset of Washington D.C., the relationship between humanity and nature are but some of the themes explored at length in various novels.
Over the years, I’ve lost Patience with crime novelists who I tend to regard as too gimmicky. James Patterson, David Baldacci and Patricia Cornwell are three examples that come quickly to mind. Granted, a series revolving around crime detection is bound to become formulaic by it’s very nature. There’s nothing wrong with that. If I’m comfortable with the formula, I’m happy. Raymond Chandler is considered to be an American icon and, though he only wrote seven Phillip Marlowe novels, he was somewhat formulaic. So was Arthur Conan Doyle, for that matter, and Sherlock Holmes still survives in modern media.
In order for a formula to work for me, I need to care about more than just a basic crime procedural (I’m looking at you, Longmire.) The crime universes I like to inhabit need to have as much of a cultural feel as a sense of forward momentum through plot. C. J. Box does a masterful job of this.
Consider the violence portrayed throughout his novels. Aside from the afore-mentioned exploding cows, people have met their demise from such creative means as, death by hanging from a wind turbine, death by geyser, death by bear and death by arrow, among others.
A lesser author would merely see the wild violence of the west as a means of employing shock value to draw readers, but the violence has consequences, both for Joe Pickett and his family. Box is not an overly-emotional storyteller, but he often conveys Joe’s feelings from the things he does not say.
In one instance, Joe gets into a western-style gunfight with a character. As the other guy lies on the ground dying, he mutters, “It hurts! It hurts!” over and over again. Later, multiple characters praise Joe for prevailing in the gunfight, but he can only hear the dying words of the man in his head.
Sidebar: It occurs to me that Lucas Davenport and Joe Pickett run parallel in some ways. They are both law enforcement officers who piss off their superiors, even to the point of being fired, yet who ultimately catch bad guys. But if you scratch the surface, they are antithetical. Lucas does what he does purely for the sport of it. Both men are hunters, though Lucas hunts humans, while Joe hunts game to feed his family. Lucas is an animal in human form who thrives in the jungle of crime, while Joe is a civilized man who protects his family from the horrors that he encounters on the job.
Unlike Lucas, Joe’s family is integral to his life. Thus, they are necessary to keep the audience engaged. His wife Marybeth is a strong woman who sometimes exhibits more common sense than her husband. Their marriage is not incidental to the action of the story. Often, it serves as a reservoir of strength for Joe and Nate. Joe’s family is a necessary reminder that human civilization can and must perpetuate itself, even in the face of the destructive power of raw nature and the lower elements in the human soul.
Joe is a righteous man, but he is a flawed man. He can’t shoot worth a damn. His optimistic view of the world sometimes blinds him to the darker impulses in others. He has a by-the-book approach that often causes him to butt heads with his friends and family, including Nate, a man who believes in his own code of justice.
No matter how careful an author may be, he/she can’t help but let their worldview bleed into their work. I quickly tired of the Harry Bosch novels because I noticed that Michael Connelly has an anti-police bias that I found to be off-putting. Dennis Lehane and George Pelacanos both love to perseverate about issues of race and class ad nauseam, often straying from solid storytelling into the realm of moralizing. When an author tells a reader what to think, he’s lost them, whether they agree with the viewpoint or not. I agree far more with the late Vince Flynn’s worldview about the war on terror and I share his pro-C.I.A. bias, but even I rolled my eyes (figuratively, of course) at times at the way he wrote any character who dared to oppose Mitch Rapp.
Based on his work, I’m going to hazard a guess that Mr. Box is not a leftist, or even center-left in his politics. Some might read his work and infer that he is a conservative, or even a right-winger. I would not be comfortable making such an assumption. He might be libertarian, or even center-right in his politics. But he does a good enough job presenting multiple angles on an issue that the reader is left to make up their own mind by story’s end. This is the mark of a writer who truly respects his audience.
So, seventeen Joe Pickett novels down, and I don’t know how many to go. Meanwhile, Mr. Box has developed another series centered around a cop who is an overweight single mother in her 30’s. I have a major crush on her. “Paradise Valley,” is the third novel in the Cassie Dewell series and it will be published this summer. If this proves to be Cassie’s last hurrah…well…maybe I’ll come back to this blog and dip my quill in some poison where Chuck is concerned. We’ll see.
In the meantime, a guy known only as, The Real Book Spy, has recommended several new series to me featuring characters with names like Cork O’Connor, Nick Mason and Logan West. With those characters in the queue, plus an unusual foray into the world of Harry Potter, my daily commute from Littleton to Boulder isn’t likely to get boring anytime soon.
Sidebar: I had the pleasure of meeting C. J. Box the other evening at a book signing here in Denver. I was struck by the fact that there is a lot of Wyoming in his demeanor. He seemed to be a man who is unassuming and unpretentious. In other words, there is a lot of Joe Pickett in C. J. Box, and vice versa. I took Katy, since she was the one who introduced me to the Joe Pickett series. She handled herself well, both during the Q&A period and when he signed her bookplate. I was not so fortunate. I had 10 things I wanted to say to him, but when the time came, my tongue got cramped.
Here’s a funny story he shared. He was at a writers’ conference and was seated between Michael Connelly and Lee Child, the author of the Jack Reacher series. Child was apparently complaining that fans kept asking him why the movie studio had cast Tom Cruise, a relatively diminutive figure, as Reacher. Child felt that this bit of casting (or miscasting) eclipsed anything positive about the film.
Hell, maybe I should be glad that Joe Pickett hasn’t yet made it to the screen.
David E. Kelley is supposedly interested in turning “The Highway” into a limited series. I feel more than a little trepidation about this. Kelley’s worldview is decidedly liberal and it suffuses all of his work. To me, this would be incongruous with Box’s overarching philosophy. But Box seemed to be happy with their collaboration thus far.
I’m done now. Time to do a recording studio maintenance check.