Below Zero

Blue Heaven, Box’s last book, was a terrific stand-alone thriller about rogue L.A. cops retired to Idaho. Below Zero is a return to the Joe Pickett series, Box’s ongoing dissection of crime in Wyoming as seen through the eyes of a game warden whose favorite big game is human villains. Below Zero is the ninth Pickett book, and it could be the best one yet. Beautifully written and constructed, with an art that underplays its excitement and emotional strength, it quickly becomes personal with a phone message: “Tell Sherry April called.” But April, the Picketts’ foster daughter, was killed in a bloody massacre, described in Winterkill, which Joe witnessed. In subsequent calls, the girl calling herself April gives so many details of their life together that Sherry begins to believe she really is alive. Joe is still skeptical. Meanwhile, Box’s amazing ability to create villains both frightening and believable kicks into high gear. An older man, Stenko, his son Robert, and a young girl (the one leaving messages and texting Sherry) are traveling across the country. Stenko’s purpose is to undo the damage he’s done to the environment by erasing his “carbon footprint” first to zero and then to below zero. Unfortunately, he is lowering his footprint with a series of mostly violent crimes. Stenko’s first target is in a trailer park: a giant mobile home, called The Unit by a retired farm couple, that gets about seven miles per gallon. Stenko shoots the couple, then burns The Unit. “Here’s the deal,” Stenko says to his next targets. “I was a hard-charger. Ambitious, ruthless, I guess…. But then I got the word from my docs…. I thought, What a selfish bastard I am. Like you two, I took and took and I never gave anything back…. Now I’ve got this deficit I’m trying to pay down.”