The Highway, by CJ Box

Review published on August 28, 2013. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

The Highway is the seventeenth novel from CJ Box. Box’s second of 2013, it returns to the character of Cody Hoyt, the jaded cop of Back of Beyond fame. When two girls, one his son’s girlfriend, go missing on a road trip across Montana, Hoyt (aided by naïve partner Cassie Dewell) conducts a frantic investigation into their disappearance. The search will see them introduced to the FBI’s Highway Serial Killer Task Force, with Box drawing on the darkest subject matter of his career to date.

Box has never been a slouch when it comes to body count, but The Highway is a different beast to his previous books. His villains tend to be rational creatures, motivated by greed or revenge; not so in The Highway. By contrast, here we have a cruel and calculating sadist. He lays his plans methodically, making him a formidable opponent for law enforcement. Crucially, he usually preys on the kind of women whom society won’t miss. The book has its origins in Box reading about the Highway Serial Killer Task Force, which had identified hundreds of women had been murdered and discarded along the highways of the USA. Hundreds… A cynic might suggest that comparable numbers of middle class housewives being murdered might be treated as a national emergency.

The Highway is dark all the way to its core, with a sadistic, inhuman antagonist, scenes of murder and torment, and the knowledge that the whole story is rooted firmly in fact. Box’s books are always memorable, but this one etches itself blackly and indelibly into the reader’s mind.

Box did some intensive research for The Highway and it shows. There’s plenty of world-creating detail in here, from the bottles of urine truckers keep in cabs to eliminate the need for rest stops, to the bras hung from side mirrors to deter “lot lizards” (prostitutes) who’ll assume a husband and wife team are driving, to the outlandish clothing worn by some truckers (not least one who drives virtually naked with the heaters turned on full blast). It might not make the antagonist sympathetic, but it certainly gives the uninitiated a firmer grasp of the life of a long-distance trucker.

Villain aside, Box clearly holds truckers as a class in high regard. For him, they represent the pioneer spirit of the US, and their contribution to society is unfairly ignored by effete urbanites. The familiar Box politics come to the fore again, with rugged individualism and working class machismo prized over reliance on government bureaucracy. Likewise, justice is not best served by targets or adherence to procedure. In that respect, Cassie Dewell is an unusual departure as a heroine. Promoted as part of an affirmative action programme, she lacks experience, and in the early stages of the book she is complicit in action that sees the police bureaucracy prize regulations over effectiveness.

By contrast, returning hero Cody Hoyt is a hardcore maverick. Despite the golden-heart that we are occasionally allowed to glimpse, he is recidivist alcoholic and something of a brute. He is of the ‘ends justify the means’ school, and enjoys the best clear-up rate on the force because of it.

Tightly written and unabashedly earthy, you’d never know The Highway was the second book to come forth from Box’s typewriter within six months. The tone and content of The Highway may be different, but the quality remains the same.

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