Article published on August 1, 2011.
“The night before Cody Hoyt shot the county coroner, he was driving without purpose in his county Ford Expedition as he often did these days.” As first lines go, it’s a killer, setting a high bar for the book that follows. That book is Back of Beyond, August’s instalment in Corvus’ year of releases from Wyoming crime writer CJ Box.
While the majority of the twelve Box books to be released this year feature everyman hero Joe Pickett, Back of Beyond features Cody Hoyt, a maverick cop struggling with alcoholism and nicotine withdrawal.
No doubt eyes will roll at the mention of yet another maverick cop; they needn’t. Hoyt is at the hard edge of hardboiled heroes. His struggle with alcoholism is just that; he is no bar-trawling booze-hound, instead he tries hard, but still sometimes fails, to resist the bottle. He isn’t misunderstood or undervalued by his superiors, he genuinely is trouble, eliciting the same seven letter insult from almost every other character at some point. And his dogged devotion to the case isn’t the hallmark of a great cop – instead it’s because this case is inherently personal to him.
That case begins with the discovery of a charred corpse in a burned out cabin. The corpse is that of Hank Winters, Hoyt’s AA sponsor, and Hoyt’s search for his killer sees him tracking a group of tourists, among them his son, deep into the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park.
In Back of Beyond, Box demonstrates a rare skill for breathing new life into established devices. A party of tourists lost in the wilderness with a killer on the loose; such is the stuff of a thousand old slasher flicks. However, Box uses the beauty of the landscape and his knowledge of technical detail to rediscover the fascination, and the horror, of this time-honoured set piece. Similarly, the diverse party of tourists seems straight from Dame Agatha; the wealthy playboys, the feuding married couple, the mysterious tour operator, the stepfather seeking to establish a relationship with his future stepson; this is a cast which could have lapsed into superficial cliché so easily. However, through excellent characterisation, and a fine examination of their very modern troubles, Box creates something deeply authentic with a contemporary feel.
Beyond that, Box uses the character of tour guide Jed McCarthy to give an absolute masterclass in assessing group dynamics. McCarthy’s understanding of interactions between strangers is outstanding, and indeed at certain points his brilliance puts him at risk of stealing the show from Hoyt. In such profound isolation, the tourist party becomes something of a self-contained society, and in that society, McCarthy uses expert skills in manipulation in order to rule, in turn showcasing his creator’s superb grasp of character.
As should be expected from CJ Box, the representations of the natural world are formidable, combining fact, physical description, and outdoorsman savoir faire to create something memorable –
When Cody looked out over the vista of green carpeted slopes with tree-choked river valleys, massive red-veined geological upthrusts that bordered the eastern horizon until they gave up and became mountains, and the vast sprawling tableau of Yellowstone Lake miles ahead and below them, he said, “What a big country.”
Mitchell grunted and reached back into a saddlebag for his binoculars. “Don’t fall in love with it,” Mitchell said. “It’s guaranteed to break your heart.”
Such are the twin skills of CJ Box; his characterisation and his eye for environment are outstanding. As a result, he writes fiction with an acute authenticity, which resonates with outdoorsmen and urban- and suburban-ites alike. Back of Beyond is a case in point, combining these powers with a well-structured plot which, while flirting with implausibility at the top of the fourth quarter, offers the type of entertainment and escapism that drives us towards crime fiction in the first place.