"The Crazy Mountains were on fire and Cassie Dewell sat alone in her car at night on McLeod Street across from the Grand Hotel in Big Timber, Montana, looking for a twenty-four-year-old reprobate known as Antlerhead."
From that opener, reminiscent of the classic first line from THE LAST GOOD KISS by James Crumley, C.J. Box has once again shown himself to be a series-crime-fiction author with an extra gear that most of his contemporaries don't have. In some cases, it's piercing prose like this. In others, it's his deft layering of Western history and contemporary issues into watertight plotting. In the case of THE BITTERROOTS, the fifth novel featuring deputy-turned-private-eye Cassie Dewell, it's his depictions of strong women that sidestep "kickass women" stereotypes and male-gazeyness.
Cassie Dewell doesn't quite fit in anywhere. She's never blended in well in the male-driven culture of Western law enforcement. She's been luckless in her love life, thanks to about twenty extra pounds and a persistent self-esteem problem. She's also unsure of herself as a professional even as she's piled up an impressive track record, tending to view that part of herself through her personal falterings. Yet, she knows she's good at what she does, and wishes she didn't have to keep on proving it. In other words, she's not the typical male-created female character; for sure, you'll never catch her looking in the mirror and describing her breasts to herself.
Box's Joe Pickett novels, though centered on a male character, have always had standout female characters: his tough wife, Marybeth; his human-eyeroll daughters; his cheerfully sociopathic mother-in-law; and more than a few murderous villianesses. That eye for a non-receding female finds its fullest expression yet in THE BITTEROOTS, not just in Cassie Dewell and her pained persistence, but in her newest client, a hard-charging Bozeman lawyer; in a teen girl who's forced to pretend to be someone else and finds she has a preternatural instinct for it; in the lone female daughter of a haughty land-baron clan in Montana's Lochsa County; and still others.
All that good stuff, plus the usual pinpoint plotting and love-of-the-land prose that manages to be literary without descending into pretentious Heart-Earth poetry, can be found in THE BITTERROOTS. I won't use the dreaded "transcends the genre" cliché, which isn't fair in any case, but I will say that Box stretches the traditional stalking grounds of the series crime novel while playing comfortably within its traditions and reader expectations. And, as the Pickett series starts to creak and stiffen up a bit with age and character stasis, the Cassie Dewell series has fully grown into full, rich, satisfying maturity.