Merely Excellent

Last night I finished reading In Plain Sight, the new novel by C. J. Box. If you’re not familiar with the Joe Pickett series, I ended my review of the last one by saying, “Recommended for practically everybody”-so that gives you an idea of what I think. They’re Western mysteries-Pickett is a game warden-but calling them that is far too reductive. (I interviewed Box last year if you want an overview-sign up for a free trial today!)

I came in on the series mid-way, and I have to confess (see, my blog is confessional!) that I had a childish preconception that I wouldn’t like it because I thought the author’s name was silly. (“C. J. Box? Is he/she serious?”) It sounded like the pseudonym for a cheezmo thriller writer. After I read a chapter, however, I didn’t have an issue with the name anymore. In fact, I started wondering if I could use “D. K. Sack” as my own pen name.

(Amusing footnote: When I interviewed Box last year, he told me that he used to write a column for a small Wyoming newspaper under his real name, Chuck Box, but the ranch hands all thought that was a pseudonym, given that that’s what they called the toolboxes behind the cabs of their pickups. Hence “C. J.”)

Picking up a book mid-series represents a problem for the reviewer, though. In this case, I’d been handed one of Bill Ott’s favorite authors because Bill was on sabatical, working on his own book. He had reviewed-and raved about-the first three installments. And while I really, really liked Trophy Hunt, I had a couple of quibbles that kept me from starring the review.

But how was I to write with authority about the series-especially when I was claiming that this book wasn’t as good as the previous three, which I’d never read?

The answer, fortunately, was simple. While Booklist reviews are the work of one reviewer, and reflect that reviewer’s opinion, when more than one reviewer covers a writer’s body of work, it becomes a team effort. Bill’s reviews told me all I needed to know about where the fourth book stood in the series. And while I would never adopt another reviewer’s opinion as my own (I’ve panned writers other Booklisters have praised, and vice versa), Bill’s reviews did what all good reviews do: instead of telling the reader what to think about a book, they give the reader enough information to decide whether or not they agree with the reviewer.

(I might also have had some inside knowledge on that point, given that I have coffee with Bill four or five times a week.)

At any rate, I wrote my review not using Bill’s reviews to make it seem as if I’d read the first three Box books, but using the information in them to place the fourth book in context. I think it worked pretty well.

And now Joe Pickett is “my” series…for now. (Chuck, please don’t publish one while I’m on family leave!) Having read and reviewed the last two does make me feel more qualified to write about the new one. Though In Plain Sight presents a small dilemma for me.

As is always the case with an author I really, really like, I wonder if I’m being truly objective. If I love the book, am I being too generous because I’ve championed his books in the past and now have something invested in the series? (Sometimes I think reviewers start to feel responsible for the books somehow, as if they’re part of the team…always a bad idea.)

But if I don’t like the new one as well as I liked the last one, as is the case here, am I holding the author to an unfair standard? I think his last book was brilliant and this one is great-with a couple of quibbles. But no one can get improve with every single book. So if a writer delivers a book that isn’t necessarily a step forward, or doesn’t show improvement-but is still a lot better than most of the stuff out there-do you dock him for it?

Hmm…maybe I’ve answered my own question.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a review to write.

(Oh, and anyone wondering why I didn’t simply reread the first three Box books, please read yesterday’s post.)

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About the Author:

Keir Graff is the editor of Booklist Online and the author of five books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Other Felix.

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