Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Perfect Murder?

I can't imagine many situations in which I'd jump into book seven of an open-ended series, without reading any of the preceding volumes or having any intention to read the ones to follow. But Free Fire, by C.J. Box, is an odd book. Well, it's built on an odd premise, anyway: the "Yellowstone Zone of Death."

In 2004, MSU law professor Brian Kalt published an article suggesting there might be a legal no-man's land in Yellowstone National Park where someone could get away with murder. Follow me here into the legal weeds:

Like all national parks, Yellowstone is federal land. The Act of Congress that created Yellowstone assigned that land exclusively to Wyoming's federal district, though in actuality, there are tiny slivers of the park that fall in the states of Idaho and Montana. The Constitution requires that in a federal criminal trial involving a jury, the jurors reside in the state and district where the crime was committed.

So say someone commits a murder in the 50-square mile slice of Yellowstone that's in Idaho. The murderer is entitled to a jury trial, with jurors who live in the state of Idaho and the district of Wyoming. In other words, jurors from that exact 50-square mile slice of Yellowstone National Park. That completely uninhabited slice. No residents, no jury. No jury, no conviction.

Professor Kalt's article almost could have been written for author C.J. Box. Box already had a running mystery-thriller series built around a character named Joe Pickett -- a Wyoming game warden. The "Yellowstone Zone of Death" was the perfect inspiration for the next Joe Pickett adventure.

Free Fire is an unusual whodunnit, as there's no question at all as to whodunnit -- the culprit confesses mere pages into the book. Instead, this is a whydunnit, a search for a motive for the crime, one that hopefully demonstrates premeditation that took place outside of Yellowstone (and thus punishable under conspiracy charges). It's a fun deviation from the mystery norm. But, as you'd probably expect of a novel inspired by a legal thought exercise, the premise is the most intriguing thing about the book.

I was less than enchanted with the book itself for a variety of reasons. First, there was the cartoonishly boorish murderer, and the contrived and cryptic way in which Box tries lets you inside his head without prematurely giving the plot away. Then there was the slight undercurrent of "white male bigot paradise" permeating the book and many of its characters -- particularly irksome to me in the very state where Matthew Shepard was a chilling example of what that world can be like for everyone else. Plus there was the considerable connective tissue reaching back to earlier Joe Pickett books, material that had no resonance for me. (To some extent, it's my fault for jumping in mid-stream. But some measure of blame should be assigned to the writer for not filling in new readers sufficiently; most authors of this sort of open-ended series go to greater effort in making each volume stand alone.)

Yet despite the flaws, there was one aspect of the book that really saved the experience for me. Box writes some very specific and vivid descriptions of the park itself. His loving descriptions of nature took me right back to my vacation to Yellowstone a few years ago. Descriptions of the places I'd been brought pleasant personal memories rushing back. Descriptions of places I hadn't been (some perhaps that don't really exist) were equally evocative, creating a crystal clear sense of place more sharp (and succinct) than any high fantasy writer who digresses for pages to describe an imagined land.

In short, I came for the tantalizing legal conceit and was entertained by the imaginary return to Yellowstone National Park. That said, there's enough subpar and even off-putting material here that if you've never visited Yellowstone and you're not a legal wonk, I can't imagine you'd enjoy it. I'd give Free Fire a B-. To date, Box has written ten more Joe Pickett novels after this, but this one will certainly be my last.

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