With “The Highway,” his latest contemporary Western suspense novel, C.J. Box is taking risks and flouting rules.
Through 13 novels featuring Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett and three standalone thrillers, the Cheyenne, Wyo., author has earned a reputation as one of better mystery writers working today. His work connects old Western settings and stereotypes (drawling, droop-mustached gunfighter types) with new Western concerns and characters (people pretending to be drawling, droop-mustached gunfighter types). And it’s all laced with a light, laconic literary touch.
But until “The Highway,” Box mostly played within the established one-good-guy-gets-one-bad-guy sandbox of the genre.
Not this time. It’s clear that he feels he’s built some capital with his readers — some measure of willingness to follow wherever he goes — and with “The Highway,” he’s clearly cashing in and careening into new territory. And Box, a canny and consummate craftsman, gets away with it.
It’ll be tricky to explain how without giving away this novel’s many pleasurable reveals. But I’ll give it a shot.
Cody Hoyt, the bad-tempered, rule-breaking county detective from Helena, was introduced in 2011’s well-received “Back of Beyond.” Then, he went to Yellowstone to rescue a group of backpackers — including his son — from a gang of killers.
In “The Highway,” he’s back, along with his son and several others from “Back of Beyond.” This time, newly discharged from his job and newly fallen off the wagon, Hoyt is pressed into service to find two teen girls who disappeared while driving north of Yellowstone.
He and his former partner, Cassie Dewell — manipulated by a villainous sheriff into getting Hoyt fired — manage to work together again just well enough to determine that the girls may have been waylaid by an unknown long-haul trucker with a murderous agenda, and maybe, a mystery partner or two.
More cannot be said about the plot. But suffice to say that Box, through dramatic shifts in the story’s points of view, swerves this story off the Wyoming road and onto some rim-rattling Montana terrain. A new hero emerges. Not everybody gets what he or she has coming. And while there’s plenty of good stuff left hanging for a follow-up book, it won’t be the typical new series entry.
So “The Highway” doesn’t completely satisfy conventional expectations for suspense novels. But it satisfies nonetheless.
One of Box’s bigger gifts is his ability to create sumptuous characters from spare, surgical strokes of prose. A favorite: “He drove his truck for eleven months and hunted elk with the other, and he could quote Shakespeare and Paul Harvey without missing a beat.”
Want to share the literary road less traveled with people like that? Get off the genre interstate and take “The Highway.”
Jim Thomsen is a freelance book editor based in Seattle.