C.J. Box takes a momentary step away from his popular Joe Pickett novels with BACK OF BEYOND. Those of us awaiting the resolution (or steps toward one) of the intriguing ending of COLD WIND will have to wait a bit longer. In the meantime, Box’s fans will find his new book somewhat challenging. It contains some of his finest writing, enough that one could call it a flawed masterwork. I use the term “flawed” for reasons that I will make clear later in this review. Nevertheless, BACK OF BEYOND is a riveting, unforgettable work.
"Box does some of his best writing here (and for a wordsmith of his caliber, that’s really saying something) in describing Cody’s fall from personal grace..."
The focal point is a gent named Cody Hoyt, a sheriff’s investigator for Lewis and Clark County, Montana. Cody will be the first to admit that he is a bent cop, in the sense that he takes shortcuts, doesn’t color in the lines, and is a loose cannon. Did I mention he is an alcoholic as well? As the book opens, Cody is two months into a sobriety program, though he remedies that state of affairs in due time. The issue of whether alcoholism is a disease or a character disorder is pretty well resolved in Cody’s case; by his own admission, he was born with his wires crossed. His reputation as a troublemaker precedes him wherever he goes.
Box does some of his best writing here (and for a wordsmith of his caliber, that’s really saying something) in describing Cody’s fall from personal grace and, even more importantly, why it happens. The “why” involves the burning death of Hank Winters, Cody’s friend and sobriety sponsor. At first blush, Hank’s demise appears to be by misadventure. But Cody isn’t entirely convinced, and after he begins kicking over some evidence, he uncovers a pattern of suspicious deaths and a trail that leads to a week-long horseback trip through Yellowstone Park, an expedition that Cody’s son happens to be on with his soon-to-be stepfather. Cody’s actions during the initial stages of his investigation result in his suspension from the sheriff’s department, so that he is officially without support as he races to catch up with the expedition and the murderer, whom Cody is all but certain is on the hike.
Box’s narrative moves back and forth between Cody --- whose forward progress is impeded seemingly by accident, but more probably by malevolent design --- and the horseback trip through some of the most beautiful and primitive country in the United States. A number of individuals seem to be working at cross-purposes while Justin remains blissfully but dangerously ignorant of what is occurring.
It is here that the campers find themselves in the Back of Beyond referenced in the title, a name informally given to the areas off the dedicated trails that have not been traversed for decades. And it is here, too, where Box’s prose really shines. His ability to delve deep into the nooks and crannies of moods and personalities is matched, if not exceeded, by his ability to describe unsettled terrain, and he outdoes himself here on all counts. When violence comes, it is sudden, graphic, unforgettable, and yes, final. Rough justice is obtained, not entirely neatly or well, but truly done nonetheless.
BACK OF BEYOND is beautifully written and wonderfully told. So what’s the flaw? Things at the end are wrapped up just a bit too quickly for what is a rather complicated scenario. Instead of throwing clues like bread crumbs throughout the narrative, Box almost delivers on the whole loaf in a huge gulp or two near the end. Readers who enjoy his work solely for the mystery may be somewhat disappointed; what is undeniable is that, as a thriller and a story of justice and redemption, BACK OF BEYOND works extremely well. It may not be one of Box’s best books, but it is certainly one of my favorites.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 18, 2011