A new CJ Box is always a cause for celebration in our house, even if – as is the case here – it isn’t the latest instalment in the Joe Pickett series (Box issued the 15th book, , earlier this year, his 16th, Off the Grid, is set for publication in early 2016) but rather another novel featuring Cassie Dewell (who we first saw in The Highway – one of Box’s best novels to date – which was itself a sort of sequel to Back of Beyond, which introduced Cody Hoyt, dispatched – spoiler alert – in The Highway). in some ways, then, this is book 2 and in some ways this is book 3 of a loose sort of series.
The novel opens with Cassie continuing to investigate the case that was left somewhat open ended at the end of The Highway – and the case bookends this novel, in the same way that the events of Mr Mercedes bookend Finders Keepers (the one difference being that Box is better on playing the longer game than King so it might be that we don’t meet resolution on this plot strand for a while if Box decides to run a Cassie Dewell series in parallel with Joe Pickett). But this is merely preface to the action of Badlands, which sees Cassie leave her old job behind and move to Grimstad, North Dakota, a place just up the road from Fargo and subject to a similar climate. Thanks to frakking, the place is awash with new wealth and according to Cassie’s new boss, Sheriff Kirkbride, Grimstad is coming to resemble the wild west. Lots in other words for Cassie (and Box for that matter) to get stuck into.
Elsewhere, a paperboy named Kyle Westergaard sees a car go off the road, its passenger all but disembowelled in the crash – and rescues a package of meth and money that his mother’s wayward boyfriend sees as the answer to all of his – sorry their, their, the kid and his mother too, yeah, sure – all of their money worries. But, of course, the meth and the money belong to someone – in this instance two Hispanic gangbangers, up from Los Angeles to try and earn their gang a place at the lucrative new frontier of frakking (Box has one of his grounded reliable characters say that frakking isn’t a big deal, it feels like it might be Box’s own view on things). They are part of a gang who are brazen in their use of violence, using torture and intimidation to get their own way. Before you can pretty much sneeze, there are body parts all over town and you don’t have to be the sharpest tool in the box to know that Kyle’s family is driving towards a brick wall at about 200 miles an hour.
It’s as snappy as an Elmore Leonard and propulsive in the way that all crime novels (the good and the bad) try to be. What sets Box apart – and this is as true of Badlands as it is of any of his books – is that, in addition to set pieces that snap and fizz like electricity (Badlands is full of such scenes, from an early interrogation through to the bloody climactic resolution), there are moments of quiet reflection, ordinary life intrudes (as ordinary life is prone to) and characters are rarely cyphers, there to shift the plot along. If one of the definitions of good writing was that characters determine plot and not vice versa, Box continues to demonstrate that you can write popular fiction that is both intelligent and compelling, without giving too much away to shallow spectacle.
Any Cop?: Badlands is another blinder.