Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: BACK OF BEYOND by CJ Box

Review: BACK OF BEYOND by CJ Box (Corvus, 2011)

While many crime novels nowadays are set in bustling metropolises where the populace is large but the connections are few, where humanity constantly collides in a series of minor, near-anonymous interactions, Edgar Award-winning CJ Box has built an impressive career with mysteries and thrills set amongst the small towns, vast expanses, and rugged beauty of America’s rural and backcountry areas.

Along with his terrific series starring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, Box has penned some impressive standalones (BLUE HEAVEN and THREE WEEKS TO SAY GOODBYE). This recent novel brings back Cody Hoyt, the maverick, alcoholic cop first seen in that latter book. Hoyt is now living in the Montana mountains, struggling with the mess he’s made of his life; he’s two months sober, divorced, disliked and distrusted by many, and barely sees the son he loves. Things get worse when a body is found in a burned cabin in the woods, and Hoyt realises it’s his AA sponsor Hank Winters, the only man who’s kept him off the ledge recently. Despite initial evidence to the contrary, Hoyt can’t believe Winters fell off the wagon and was burned to death in an alcoholic stupor, accident or suicide.

Determined to find a killer others don’t even believe exists, Hoyt digs himself into an even deeper hole when he shoots and wounds the county coroner in a botched stakeout, and is suspended from duty. Badge or not badge, Hoyt can’t let go, and is driven to find justice for one of his only friends – and perhaps, in doing so, a small measure of salvation for himself.

When clues point Hoyt in the direction of an outfitter leading a multi-day horseback trek, a trip that includes Hoyt’s estranged son, he – and the novel – shifts focus to the remote ‘back of beyond’ that is the magnificent, rugged landscapes of Yellowstone National Park. On the hunt for a killer disguised amongst the motley crew of tourists. A killer that is far too close to the only thing that Hoyt really cares about in his downward-spiralling life.

Overall, BACK OF BEYOND has all the tension, twists and intrigue you want from a good crime novel, while elevating itself ‘above the pack’ thanks to the author’s great touch for setting and compelling, layered characters. Hoyt is an intriguing and well-drawn, if not that likeable, character. While he has plenty of the 'maverick, alcoholic cop' stuff that on the surface could make him a cliche, there is a sense of something deeper in Box's portrayal of Hoyt. An arc, a perspective that creeps up on the reader.

The book lulls a bit for a brief period as it switches from Hoyts misadventures following Winters' death to the pursuit through Yellowstone, as an intriguing cast of characters on the horse trek are introduced and we adjust to their layered interactions. But Box gives readers a terrific sense of Yellowstone, especially its mix of beauty and danger (with or without the added human element). Box’s wilderness isn’t just a pristine or spectacular backdrop, a natural curtain in front of which the action is played out – it’s layered and textured itself; Mother Nature in all its vim and volatility. It’s clear that Box has a real appreciation and understanding of the great outdoors, which comes through in the authentic evocation of the landscapes.

An enjoyable read.

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2 comments:

  1. Craig - A great review, for which thanks. I'm very glad you enjoyed this one. Box has a real skill for creating a sense of mood and setting, and I think Cody Hoyt's a really interesting character. As you say, he creeps up on one. I found it helped to have read Three Weeks to Say Goodbye before this one, but it's certainly not necessary.

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  2. Thanks for the comment Margot. I actually haven't read THREE WEEKS TO SAY GOODBYE yet myself, but still felt that I picked up on plenty of Hoyt backstory that was apparent in BACK OF BEYOND, enough to get a good sense of the character.

    I love your comment about sense of mood - you're exactly right, that's what Box (and some of my favourite other crime writers) really do create, which elevates the books beyond the action and storyline.

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