A Review of C. J. Box’s Open Season by Darren Nguyen
If you see me in the student lounge, then chances are that either I would be grinding for an upcoming test or quickly finishing a homework assignment. However, one thing that most people notice is that whenever I enter the student lounge, I would sit down, grab a CJ Box book and start reading away. I would read and read despite the noise or the time constraints. For this book review, I will lay out the reasons why I love this mystery series and it all starts with Book 1: Open Season.
First, let’s talk about Joe Pickett, the main character. Not much is said of Joe’s physical characteristics other than he is in his mid-thirties, lean and has blonde hair. However, much of his personality and motivations are revealed. Joe is not a special guy. He cannot shoot accurately with his service weapon (.357 Magnum Revolver [he prefers his shotgun anyways]), hates poachers, and has an intense adherence to his duty as a game warden. His parents were broth drunkards and argued frequently. Joe had a brother named Victor, who, too, wanted to be a game warden after they both read the same game warden advertisement. However, Victor died in a drunken car accident and Joe was left to be a game warden to not only fulfil his dream but his brother’s as well. He wanted to be the father his father never was and give a good life to his family. Because of Joe’s intense sense of duty, he has gotten into trouble with his superiors. One incident that has stuck with Joe is that he arrested Wyoming Governor Budd for fishing without a license. It was a miracle that Joe was not fired that day, but since then the locals and other law enforcement never let Joe forget.
Another dynamic that I like about Joe is that he is a tragic character with a very weird flaw. All Joe wants is to do the right thing and be honest about it. He wants to enforce all the game rules and regulations to the best of his ability. Thanks to Joe’s stubbornness and determination, however, what he gets in return is ire from the governor, the sheriff, the sheriff’s deputy, and his former friend Wacey and former mentor Vern.. He lives on a frozen $32,000 per year paycheck which does not generate enough money for his family, leaving them on the brink of financial ruin. What keeps Joe going is his wife, Marybeth. The team dynamic between Joe and Marybeth is a story-defining one. Marybeth represents the strong woman archetype. She works two jobs, takes care of the kids, and keeps Joe from losing his mind. Joe expresses his fears of not being strong or good enough to take care of his family. This inner conflict serves as not only a detriment for Joe but also his motivation. Despite the differences he has with many of his comrades and superiors, he always finds ways to set aside his biases and focus on his duty. Overall, Joe is a relatable character, and I admire his passion for his job and his family. He reminds me of my own father in a way. While both work completely separate jobs, their passion for their jobs and family remain the same. Both are strong-willed men who go above and beyond to carry out their duty even if they draw the ire of their superiors. It is Joe’s passion that makes him such an iconic character in his series. He does not care whether he has friends, money, or fame. All he needs is his badge, gun, and his family, and he is set for life.
The book is fast-paced. A lot happens in a small span of chapters, so it is easy to get lost in information. Every chapter matters and that is what makes this book such a hard one to put down as Box devotes little time to exposition. First off, the prologue and the first chapter rush into the action: we immediately see a conflict between Joe Pickett and a local hunter named Ote Keeley. Ote steals Joe’s gun and threatens to shoot him. Joe ends up surviving the encounter but returns home embarrassed. Throughout the entire book, the local Sheriff, O. R. “Bud” Barnum, Deputy Sheriff McLanahan, and other local outfitters (hunters) constantly bring up the incident to Joe just to spite him. Back to the story line, Joe’s family is introduced: his wife Marybeth, his 7 year old daughter Sheridan, and his 3 year old daughter Lucy. Marybeth was a prospective lawyer when she met Joe. Once they married, they moved to Saddlestring Wyoming, in which Joe became the district game warden and Marybeth a working mother. Sheridan is a down-to-earth kind of girl. She does not have many friends because of her dad’s profession. She likes to have pets and prefers their company over people. Finally, Lucy is innocent at heart and cheerful, Lucy’s character is not explored deeply in this book. After introducing the family, the author transitions to a murder that has happened outside Joe’s home. The dead man is Ote Keeley and the events that happen in this book extend far deeper than this murder.
What I like about CJ Box’s style of writing is the buildup of tension between Joe and everyone else. Each chapter in the book adds more to the tension and, in the last few chapters, he lets loose. In this book, there is tension between Joe and Vern, Joe and Wacey, and Sheridan and “the man.” How does Joe fix all of these conflicts? All by himself. One of the defining traits of Joe is that he usually likes to do things “lone wolf” style. He does not trust Barnum or the police to handle the Ote Keeley murder investigation, nor does he trust his superiors at Wyoming Game and Fish to back him up. Joe investigates the murder of Ote Keeley, telling the sheriff it is “personal” and ends up finding mysterious fur on the cooler next too Keeley’s dead body which further allows him to purse the investigation because the association is within Joe’s jurisdiction. Early in the investigation, Joe sent the hair samples to the Game and Fish lab for species analysis. Mysteriously, the hair samples were never analyzed and are missing from the lab’s stock. Joe is called in by the Game and Fish Assistant Director Lee Etbauer for the incident involving Ote Keeley and is suspended. Finally, Joe is denied the InterWest (pipeline company) job offer he received from Vern. All of these events pointed to a cover-up.
Part of the cover-up is led by a mysterious man who routinely stalks and threatens Sheridan. Sheridan’s side of the story further raises the stakes on the cover-up because now Joe’s family is involved even without his knowledge. Before Sheridan is blackmailed by the mysterious man, she discovers a family of creatures which she describes as “round knobby head and large black shiny eyes […] tiny pink nose […] the animal was light brown with a dark stripe that came over the top of its head and down between its large eyes” (p. 66). She enjoyed feeding and talking to her secret pets until she discovers that she is being stalked by someone. All the stalker tells her is that he knew her dad and he will kill her family if she tells anyone that she is being stalked by him. Throughout the book, the man shows up to check on Sheridan to remind her to keep her silence and of the consequences. Eventually Sheridan does tell Marybeth about the man and, keeping true to his word, the stalker comes to the house-fully loaded. Sheridan’s side story plays a role in exposing the cover up and the man’s actions push Joe to the breaking point. Because of the shooting, Joe’s personal life and job intertwined once again and Joe was not going to tolerate it any further.
In the end, Open Season is a great start for those wanting to get into CJ Box’s Joe Pickett series. This book gives the reader a great impression of who Joe is and why he does what he does. I admire the attention to detail that Box employs when describing the setting in general. He is not lavish with his explanations, just offering down-to-earth descriptions of the surroundings. His storytelling keeps the readers interested and leaves no chapters to waste. Every chapter matters and missing a chapter could easily confuse the reader in the subsequent chapters. I would definitely recommend this book to any one of my classmates and teachers.