C. J. Box: A Booklist Reader Guide

Mystery Month 2015

Fans love prolific authors—more books means more to love, right? But it can be difficult for newcomers to decide where to start, especially with an author who alternates a long-running series with decidedly different stand-alones. But we’re here to help! Find the way to reading happiness with our Booklist Reader Guides.


C. J. Box

C. J. Box

Who’s the Man in the Hat?

C. J. Box is a Wyoming native who writes mysteries and thrillers set primarily in Wyoming and the neighboring states of Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota. Booklist was one of the first review journals to take note of his talent, with Bill Ott’s starred, over-the-word-limit rave review of Box’s debut, Open Season (2001). That book introduced Joe Pickett, game warden of Twelve Sleep County—and nearly ran the table of mystery-fiction awards, winning the Anthony, the Barry, the Gumshoe, and the Macavity for best first novel. Since then, Box has won the Edgar (for Blue Heaven, 2008) and the Prix Calibre 38. Commercial success has been even more forthcoming than critical plaudits; he’s become a best-selling author whose forthcoming Badlands (2015) will be printed in a first run of a whopping quarter-million copies.

Joe Pickett Series

Open Season by C J BoxThe Joe Pickett series, which as of this writing includes fifteen full-length novels and one collection of short stories, in the early years depicted Joe as a Gary Cooper for our time, flawed but likable, and determined to do the right thing regardless of personal consequences. He’s a poor shot with a gun, and notoriously hard on department vehicles, but will never back down when things are about to “get Western.” Joe’s best friend, Nate Romanowski, is a more complicated character, a veteran and master falconer who lives off the grid and answers not to the law but his own personal code of ethics, which is one step up from “kill or be killed.” Though the interplay between Joe and Nate sustains many of the books, Nate takes center stage in the high-powered Force of Nature (2012).

Balanced exploration of Western issues, environmental and political, characterizes the early Pickett novels (biomining in Free Fire, 2007; hunting in Blood Trail, 2008), although that focus has shifted over time. Joe’s family life, with wife Marybeth, daughters Sheridan and Lucy, and eventually, adopted daughter April, grounds the series and provides some welcome domestic harmony and drama in a genre notable for its lone wolves. Joe’s family is at the forefront in his most recent Pickett novel, Endangered (2015).

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Stand-alone Novels

Box also writes stand-alone novels that are not part of the series. Blue Heaven (2008) put kids in jeopardy after they witness a campground execution by bad-news ex-cops, and showed that Box is as adept at writing page-turning thrillers as he is at creating character-driven mysteries. Blue Heaven won the prestigious Edgar Award for best mystery novel, and turned Box from a book-a-year author to one sometimes turning out a book every six months. The non-series titles have been less consistent than the Pickett novels. Box followed Blue Heaven with the disappointing Three Weeks to Say Goodbye (2009), set in suburban Denver and reading more like Harlan Coben than C. J. Box.

Badlands by C J BoxSince then, though, Box has played more to his strengths in the stand-alones, and has used recurring characters to impart a series-like feel to some of them. In Back of Beyond (2011), we meet Cody Hoyt, a short-fused cop who finds himself out of his element in Yellowstone Park backcountry. In The Highway (2013), Cody is fired for playing with evidence—busted by his own partner, Cassie Dewell. In this year’s Badlands, Cody’s out of the picture altogether, and we join Cassie as she takes a new job as chief investigator in the modern-day Wild West town of Grimstad, North Dakota.

Despite the very occasional misstep (the 2013 Joe Pickett novel, Breaking Point, or Three Weeks to Say Goodbye) Box remains a must-read author for fans of character-driven mysteries and tightly plotted thrillers set in the modern American West.

Starting Points

Blue HeavenPick up the Joe Pickett series at its start, Open Season (2001)—or jump in midway with Out of Range (2005).

Blue Heaven (2008) remains the best stand-alone thriller. If you want to read the newer ones, you may enjoy reading Back of Beyond (2011), The Highway (2013), and Badlands (2015) in order. (The Highway provides a foundation for Badlands but is more formulaic serial-killer fare and not Box’s best.) Or simply pick up the excellent Badlands and don’t look back.

Series Standouts

Force of Nature by C J BoxSavage Run (2002) is a sophomore effort every bit as good as his debut. Free Fire (2007) is a bubbling cauldron of action set in the Yellowstone caldera. Nowhere to Run (2010) and Force of Nature (2012) are series titles with the pace, action, and violence of the stand-alones.


Paul Doiron’s Mike Bowditch novels feature a rule-breaking game warden from Maine, not Wyoming, but readers drawn to character-driven mysteries set in the great outdoors will enjoy the change of scenery.

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire is often mentioned in the same breath as Box’s Joe Pickett, primarily because he’s the only other big-name mystery author writing in Wyoming. Despite the authors’ differences, there are enough similarities to make these worth exploring.

Further Reading

2015_mystery-hashtagThe Booklist Interview: C. J. Box

Story behind the Story: C. J. Box’s Out of Range

About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

2 Comments on "C. J. Box: A Booklist Reader Guide"

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  1. bettyandtomtaylor@gmail.com' Betty Taylor says:

    Just finished reading “Winterkill” (2003 published) and April was reclaimed by her birth mother and was in a compound with the Soverigns. In the course of the story April was killed along with others. I thought in later books in series, April was in Joe’s family along with his 2 other daughters. Am I wrong or was the face in the window Joe thought was April not her?

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