I just finished reading Stone Cold, which is Box’s 14th offering in the Joe Pickett series. If you haven’t read any of these, Joe is a fish and game warden stationed in a fictional town east of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. An incredible amount of criminal activity is routine when Joe’s around. He steps outside his job description to investigate and then confront the bad guys; things “get western,” so there’s plenty of action that can keep you up, reading, until you reach the end.

That said, the plots are only one-fifth of the reason I’ve read all of these books. Here are the other four, in no particular order.

1. Landscape. Box does a great job evoking the atmosphere of the Rocky Mountain west. There’s nothing quite like the “pure solitude” and “white isolation” of a long winter drive on a Wyoming highway, and Box captures that feeling perfectly.

2. Town life. It all happens in bars with dusty, sometimes mangy, hunting trophies with Christmas lights strung through the antlers; early morning coffee shops; and earnest conversations in hardware stores. Again, pitch perfect.

3. Libertarian ideas. Box’s characters complain about “crony capitalists,” the intrusiveness of the federal government, and the corrosive effect of welfare “transfer payments” on the out-of-luck local population. But be careful: some of the biggest libertarians are the bad guys.

4. Western gothic. The realism referenced above notwithstanding, Box’s stories are fueled by gothic craziness–and I like that combination. Symbolic crucifixions in hunting camps and on wind turbines. Spectral hunters with uncanny tracking abilities. Crop circles, cattle mutilations, and characters brought back from the dead like zombies. At times, there’s almost the feeling of a Scoobie-Doo adventure–with epigraphs from Voltaire and Hank Williams Jr.

What more could a reader want?

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