CJ Box’s latest novel is only the third non-Joe Pickett book he’s written in a decade and picks up with a character who first appeared, albeit somewhat peripherally, in his debut Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Cody Hoyt is a cop and in some ways a much more straightforward hero type than Joe Pickett. He’s a hard drinking, hard smoking, shoot in the kneecap and ask questions later sort of a dude. When his AA sponsor is found dead in a burned out cabin in the woods, Hoyt is the only one to suggest it’s anything other than what it appears to be (suicide). But Hoyt’s attempts to solve the crime are hampered somewhat as a result of the fact that he is something of a loose canon. Within the opening 50 pages, he accidentally shoots the local celebrity coroner and later flees the scene of an arson not wanting to get snagged up in red tape and bureaucracy. Meanwhile, over in the back of beyond itself, we have Cody’s son Justin, Justin’s stepfather Walt and a whole host of other characters on the cusp of embarking on a seven day trip into the wilderness of Yellowstone Park. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that the killer Cody Hoyt is on the trail of is also heading deep into Yellowstone Park, albeit with an agenda.
Now. Fans of CJ Box will find a lot to like in Back of Beyond, particularly if they have already dabbled with the likes of Blue Heaven and the aforementioned Three Weeks to Say Goodbye. Box’s real strength lies in forging complex narratives that have you wanting to turn the pages and blur through the words just as fast as you are able. He is good at linking up different narratorial perspectives and knows how to slip in a detail that keeps you guessing just when you think answers are on the way (as in the first Joe Pickett novel, Open Season, where a central villainous character remained out of the reader’s grasp just because the person whose view we were inhabiting didn’t know their name so here – Box keeps us guessing who the bad guys are right up to the last page). He is also good at bringing the world – in Back of Beyond, the world of Yellowstone Park – vividly to life. Other commentators have drawn parallels between Box and George Pelecanos and the comparison is a fair one: both writers have a streak of sentimentality that would colour your response (my own thought is, if you like Pelecanos, you’ll like Box).
That isn’t to say, however, that Back of Beyond is beyond reproach. As the novel proceeds, particularly as we make our way through the later Yellowstone Park chapters, things become somewhat pell-mell. Box plays an artful game of leading you by the nose, letting us glimpse just enough of what characters are doing to think they are up to no good – but the point comes when there is too much of it going on. A party sets off into Yellowstone Park. Some members of that party apparently leave. Then other members of the party leave to follow them and try and bring them back. Then the leader of the party sets off to bring the second lot back. Only the leader isn’t doing that and any road all of the people are dead, not that we see them die, everything happening off camera. A bit of off-camera trickery is ok – it worked for both Cormac McCarthy in No Country for Old Men and Denis Johnson in Nobody Move – but there is a sense that some things have to happen in front of the reader. Too much of that is not to be recommended. What’s more, the character of Cody Hoyt is also a bit more straightforwardly genre than Box fans may be used to (Cody Hoyt is like a degenerate Jack Reacher).
All things considered, though, if you’re a fan of Box, if you’re a fan of good crime novels, you’ll more than likely find yourself on the ‘well that was pleasant enough’ side of things to want to recommend the experience to others so that is what I will do today:
Any Cop?: It may be a bit more coked up and full tilt than his usual fare but for all that it’s still a far better than average thriller if thrillers are your bag.