'Off the Grid': Newest crime fiction may not be eloquent, but it is fun

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I  won’t say C.J. Box is the most eloquent writer around, but I will say this: While reading about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett hoofing it across the Red Desert, I put down the book and gulped down a glass of water.

“Off the Grid” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $27, 371 pages) is nothing if not aptly named. Much of the narrative unfolds in the desolate Red Desert with Pickett and falconer Nate Romanowski completely off the grid while trying to thwart a plan to wipe out the NSA’s Utah Data Center with an electromagnetic disturbance.

Pickett is on special assignment from the Wyoming governor trying to track down Romanowski, who has been sent to the Red Desert by mysterious government types to find out what a Middle Eastern falconer is up to out there in the middle of nowhere. If Romanowski can shut down a suspected domestic terrorist cell, the operators promise to wipe out his criminal record.

Pickett and Romanowski have history together and make quite a literary pair. Picket is a dedicated game warden and a devout family man who lives his life with a Boy Scout mentality that sometimes tugs at the corners of frustration for readers. Romanowski is a former special forces type who lives on the fringes of society when he isn’t completely off the grid. He’s been known to break a law now and then, but a deep bond exists between him and Pickett’s entire family.

Their separate excursions into the desert are at the center of a deftly plotted and suspenseful novel that employs a powerful sense of place from an author who knows the outdoors. He also knows a thing or two about character development.

This is the 16th novel in the Joe Pickett series that has grown in stature as it’s progressed. With the exception of a mythical dream that serves as a premonition for an epic battle in the desert, this novel is grounded in plausibility and rooted in the zeitgeist of our times. There’s less of the family drama normally associated with a Joe Pickett novel, but there’s enough of it to make the reader feel at home.

If you’re new to the series, read this one as a stand-alone or start at the beginning and work up to it. Either way works just fine.

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