C. J. Box doesn’t waste any time with small talk or foreplay in Endangered, the 15th novel in the Joe Pickett series. The first two paragraphs plunge the reader into two dangerous situations, as a “lek,” or breeding group, of endangered sage grouse has been wantonly slaughtered and Joe’s middle daughter April has been found battered by the side of a road and left for dead.
The pace only accelerates from there, as two more central characters fall into grave danger in the course of the initial chapters. Box really knows how to build tension, using an array of antagonistic characters that range from smug bureaucrats to a family of psychotic rocky mountain hillbillies with an ingrown-toenail of a grudge against the rest of the world, and a desire to stick up for themselves that adds up to evil—pure and simple.
Endangered doesn’t really have any of the supernatural elements that I’ve described as “Western Gothic” in previous reviews. Instead, the story is structured around a quartet of crimes that may or may not be interrelated. Joe Pickett is at the center of it all, of course. And there’s the persistent theme of Joe’s rugged individualism and desire to settle conflicts according to the Code of the West, resampled in a sinister key as the leitmotif for the Cates family.
Rest assured. Box is not presenting readers with the cliché of moral equivalence that so popular with writers of academic fiction. In Box’s world, the lines are clear and bright. People like the Cates family are anti-social and out to hurt other people for their own benefit. Joe Pickett is trying to uphold the law in the face of bureaucratic interference. When his individualism “crosses the line,” the worst that happens is the destruction of yet another Forest Service pickup truck.