For your Sunday, a little writing advice…
Some mystery and thriller series feature heroes with almost superhuman capabilities: Doc Savage, Dirk Pitt, James Bond, Jack Reacher, etc.
Such characters provide escapism, but there is a notable downside here. Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt and Ian Fleming’s James Bond may be fun to read about, but they are difficult for most of us to relate to. In fact, it is hard to imagine Dirk Pitt or James Bond even existing, as real people.
This is why competent but fallible heroes like Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch are far more common in commercial fiction. We can imagine Harry Bosch actually existing, even if we can’t imagine such mastery in ourselves.
But what about the hero who is all too ordinary?
At the other end of this continuum is Joe Pickett, the eponymous hero of C.J. Box’s long-running crime series. Joe Pickett is about as far from James Bond as Pittsburgh is from Pluto. Joe Pickett isn’t even in the same league as Harry Bosch.
Joe Pickett is not a U.S. Navy SEAL, an FBI agent, or even a big-city homicide detective. Joe Pickett is a Wyoming game warden. Throughout more than twenty books of the series that bears his name, Joe Pickett solves crimes that occur on the periphery of his primary, mundane duties of being a game warden.
Joe Pickett is a poor shot with a pistol. And—being primarily a game warden—he frequently finds himself without his state-issued sidearm. (In Open Season, the first Joe Pickett novel, a perp jumps Joe and takes the gun away from him.) While Joe does engage in some fisticuffs, he doesn’t always come out the winner. He’s no Jack Reacher.
Joe Pickett is a happily devoted husband and father. But he’s less than perfect even in this role. He perpetually struggles to provide adequately for his family on his meager game warden salary. Joe’s snobby, thrice divorced mother-in-law sees him as not good enough for her daughter.
Joe Pickett is, in short, a regular Joe. Notice that even his name is mundane. Very few men have names whose syllables evoke toughness, like “Dirk Pitt” or “Jack Reacher”. Or mystery, like Hieronymus Bosch (the full name of Harry Bosch.) Plenty of men have names like Joe Pickett.
Not all readers regard Joe Pickett’s “average Joe” status as a feature. Scroll through the reader reviews at Amazon, and you’ll find a few readers who definitely consider it to be a bug. These readers were obviously expecting Joe Pickett to be another Jack Reacher or Dirk Pitt, and were disappointed to read a novel about a crime-solving Everyman.
And yet, the Joe Pickett series is a critical and commercial success. At the time of this writing, the series has been in publication for more than twenty years, with no end in sight. (The Joe Pickett series is traditionally published by Putnam.) In 2021, Paramount Television Studios launched a television adaptation of the series, starring Michael Dorman in the titular role. Even after more than twenty years and twenty books, each new Joe Pickett novel reliably hits all the bestseller lists.
So clearly, C.J. Box’s average, less-than-heroic hero has struck a chord. But what are the elements of Joe Pickett’s appeal?
It might be that Joe Pickett is presented not as a superhero, but as a slightly better version of the average person, while remaining fundamentally mediocre in many aspects.
Joe Pickett overcomes wily criminals, corrupt state officials, and complicated situations not with superpowers, but with ordinary, everyday virtues: honesty, persistence, and a commitment to doing what is right. Most of us see can imagine these virtues in ourselves.
C.J. Box’s game warden sleuth also relies heavily on careful observation and studied insight to solve crimes. He relies on observation and insight far more than sheer physical courage (Jack Reacher again) or technology (James Bond, Dirk Pitt). Joe Pickett barely uses technology at all, in fact, even though the books that bear his name are all set in the twenty-first century.
Joe Pickett, then, provides a better, but believable version of ourselves. As a guy, I can’t even begin to imagine myself knocking down five guys in a bar fight, à la Jack Reacher. But could I gain the advantage on my persecutors through careful insight and observation? Yes, maybe I could do that.
Joe Pickett’s moral integrity and instinct for honesty sometimes result in temporary setbacks. But these same qualities enable him to triumph in the end. Like that old adage, “you can’t cheat an honest man”.
I will freely admit that I don’t have the moral integrity and honesty of Joe Pickett. Maybe his adventures tell me that I could be doing better not by developing superpowers, but by better practicing the virtues that are already within my grasp. And maybe this, too, is part of Pickett’s appeal.
I would submit that a hero like Joe Pickett, who must succeed through ordinary means, is more difficult to write than the hero who can rely on unlikely physical abilities or techno-wizardry. (When Jack Reacher confronts a villain, is there ever really any doubt that he will leave all his attackers unconscious and on the ground?)
C.J. Box obviously has a deep familiarity with the Wyoming setting of the Joe Pickett novels. He also seems to have a strong grasp of the work of a Wyoming game warden. I couldn’t even begin to ghost write the next Joe Pickett novel, even though I’ve read most of the books in the series. I simply don’t possess the requisite background knowledge that these stories require.
Don’t misunderstand me here: I like Dirk Pitt, James Bond, and Jack Reacher. (And I love Harry Bosch.) But there is something to be said for an ordinary hero like Joe Pickett, who defeats the opposition by doing ordinary things well.