If you do any amount of long-distance driving, you are more likely than not to encounter truck drivers and truck stops. It’s almost a given. I do not think that I will pass either on the highway in the future without thinking of C.J. Box’s THE HIGHWAY and feeling just a quiver of unease.
The book is full of surprises that occur primarily over the course of a very long and deadly 48 hours leading up to Thanksgiving. Box does some extremely interesting things in this story about a truck stop, truck-driving serial killer. One of them is to reprise a few characters and situations from BACK OF BEYOND, a stand-alone title he published in 2011. They include Cody Hoyt, an effective troubled investigator for the Lewis and Clark Montana County Sheriff’s office. Cody is a loose cannon, even when sober. When taking a few shortcuts to get the goods on a local crook who may or may not be under the Sheriff’s protection, he is summarily dismissed from the force. To make matters worse, it is his rookie partner, Cassie Dewell, who brings him down while acting under orders.
"Those who have read Box’s other books know that he is incapable of writing badly. However, he takes his game to an entirely new level with THE HIGHWAY. Pergram is a chilling character who you will not soon forget, sharply drawn and so lifelike that he seems to leap off the page."
Cody uses the dismissal as a fulcrum to deposit himself back into the drinking life, and it could not come at a worse time. Cody’s son, Jason, is in the middle of extricating himself from his old girlfriend, Danielle Sullivan, who is driving from their home in Colorado with her sister, Gracie (again, from BACK OF BEYOND), ostensibly to spend the holiday with their father in Nebraska. Danielle, though, is planning to take a side trip to visit Jason and make sure that their romance is still a going concern, despite the fact that she is geographically undesirable. The 18-year-old Danielle is all appearance and impulses, while 16-year-old Gracie is more thoughtful and mature, yet in the shadow of her sister’s outgoing personality and good looks.
Gracie is unaware of the planned detour until it is executed and protests every step of the way, right up to the point that their new route puts them on a collision course with Ronald “The Lizard King” Pergram. The nickname is self-styled, arising from the fact that Pergram enjoys abducting truck stop prostitutes, or “lot lizards,” then sexually abusing and murdering them. When he notices the Sullivan sisters on the highway, their fate is all but assured. It suddenly seems as if the two girls have vanished in mid-air. Cody, badge or not, is determined to find them and won’t rest until he does. Cassie wants to aid him as well to make up for her part in causing Cody’s dismissal from the force. The question is whether they can find the girls, let alone save them, when they are in the hands of a brilliant but deranged killer who operates in plain view and without almost anyone’s knowledge.
Those who have read Box’s other books know that he is incapable of writing badly. However, he takes his game to an entirely new level with THE HIGHWAY. Pergram is a chilling character who you will not soon forget, sharply drawn and so lifelike that he seems to leap off the page. Cassie is a sympathetic character in spite of herself, a widowed single parent with a young son and an extremely irritating mother, which is about the only thing she has in common with Pergram. If there was a contest between the two to pick the worst parent, it would probably wind up as a tie, for very different reasons; your results may differ. Also, be forewarned: there are at least two parts of the book that you may find yourself reading over and over, just to make sure you didn’t misread them the first time.
Best of all, the conclusion of THE HIGHWAY indicates the possibility that there is more to be had from at least one, if not more, of the characters presented here. Is this a new series from Box? I don’t know if I would call it that, but if THE HIGHWAY, BACK OF BEYOND and whatever might come next aren’t siblings, then they are kissing cousins who you will want to invite over time and again.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 9, 2013