CJ Box: THE HIGHWAY: What kind of sick mind…?

71ExAsr0sgL._SL1500_

In a one-star review one reader said he didn’t care about all the critical acclaim for the author. He said,  “…I still don’t want to fill my heart and head with these products of a sick mind.”

The comments from pre-release reviews of CJ Box’s THE HIGHWAY have been overwhelmingly positive though there has been an undercurrent of discomfort, sometimes anger, from both long-time Box fans and those reading him for the first time. With this book, far more than his others, people love it or hate it, and there’s not much in between.  The balance is heavily on the “love it” side, but there is an intensity and consistency to the negative points of view that bear consideration.

THE HIGHWAY is based on actual events, dozens, maybe hundreds, of unsolved abductions, disappearances, and murders of women, many, but not all, prostitutes. That’s what this book is about. If you want lighter, but still excellent fare, check out stories that feature Nero Wolfe or Hercule Poirot.

THE HIGHWAY, from the first page to the last, is intense and dark, at least compared Box’s Joe Pickett series, as well as his other standalones. It’s not dark compared to Jim Thompson’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME, or Ross MacDonald’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY, but next to the stories of Joe and Mary Beth and their girls, with best friend/loose cannon Nate Romanowski in a sidecar, this one is as black and frightening as Wyoming wilderness on a moonless night.

Part of the reason for the grimness is that you are led into the story by one of Box’s most troubled and complex protagonists, a lawman some consider to be a “borderline psychopath” himself, Cody Hoyt. Cody first appeared in THREE WEEKS TO SAY GOODBYE, and reappeared in BACK OF BEYOND. He is a fired, disgraced (in some eyes) cop, who consistently manages to do the right thing, and just as consistently manages to do it in the wrong way. He has a gift for making almost everyone on both sides of the deal upset with him. He’s your friend from high school or college that you loved being around even though every time you got in a car with him you knew two things: it would be an adventure; and you were probably going to get into trouble, maybe a lot of trouble.

CJ Box has taken fictional fee simple title to a good portion of the American West, the same way Tony Hillerman did the Big Rez, Raymond Chandler did post-depression Los Angeles, and John D. MacDonald did South Florida. THE HIGHWAY, however, though set in Wyoming and Montana, does not fit a restricted geography. It jumps the rail and busts the barricades of single locale. The true location of THE HIGHWAY is not a couple of Western states, it is America, broad and deep, as defined by that endless center-striped ribbon of road that is an organism unto itself. The American highway, perhaps more than any other physical feature of the continent, including the Rockies, the mighty Mississippi, the Great Plains, (I know, queue soundtrack: “Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies…”) embodies our culture. This man-made tentacle calibrates American consciousness like nothing else. From Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD, which plays through Cheyenne, to Stirling Silliphant’s ROUTE 66, to THELMA AND LOUISE, and the literally countless chase and road movies, TV shows, and films, this is us. THE HIGHWAY is America.

Box has fine-tuned his best-selling Pickett series to such a degree he could shift to overdrive and cruise as long as he wanted. He has chosen not to do that, challenging both his readers and himself by taking on narrative tasks that few, if any, other writers are up to. He does it notably in the Pickett book, COLD WIND, and he does it in spades in THE HIGHWAY. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to talk about how he does it in either without spilling a barrel of spoilers. But I will say this. Every time you think you know where the story is going, you are probably wrong; and, though I have read hundreds of crime fiction novels, there came a point deep in the tale at which my jaw dropped and I quit breathing for a moment. I was stunned in a way I don’t remember, ever, at least not since the scene in THE EXORCIST in which Linda Blair’s head did a three-sixty. What happened in THE HIGHWAY can’t happen in a story like this. But it did.

What is not different from Box’s other books is the voice, the pace, the rhythm, the power of the language, the passion. As sure as the night is dark, you will be hooked within a page or two. It is a tale that keeps on telling because even when you are done with it, it will not be done with you. It will come back to you on lonely roads running through an opaque night when the needle’s on empty and the only pumps are at a faded truck stop with flickering neons, and a lot that’s empty except for a single tractor-trailer, idling in blackness. The idea of filling up at a place like that will be about as appealing as spending a night at the Bates Motel.

Oh, and for the record, the introductory excerpt was from a review of THE COLLECTED WORKS OF EDGAR ALLAN POE.

Advertisements

ONE MINUTE GONE: Chapter One

cover4 

She stepped out of a shadow at the far end of the lobby, and began the long walk to the front door.

Later, as viewed in footage from a security camera, her walk would seem like a slow parade, taking on a dreamy, Felliniesque quality, time-marked by the click of her heels on the marble floor.

She was earthtones that day, colors of the fall. Sun-streaked brown hair and an oval face with wide brown eyes, set off by a brown suit that looked hand-tailored but was off-the-rack Bergdorf. The 1947 rack, that is. The skirt was snug against her thighs and the fitted jacket emphasized her figure. Not that emphasis was needed.

The concierge, who watched her every step of the way from his desk at the front of the lobby, would attest to that. So would the two college girls in flip-flops though they rolled their eyes at her dated couture. Still, each would have swapped a year of Daddy’s tuition money for her figure.

Jamie Trent was her name and her outfit came from the Spence-Chapin Thrift Shop on New York’s Upper East Side, that area of town being to collectors of pre-owned clothing what Florence is to art lovers. While some combed the thrifts for almost-new designer castoffs that could be had for a fraction of their boutique prices, Jamie sought the discards of society’s grande dames of the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, whose closets passed to the neighborhood shops when they passed on.

As she passed the concierge desk, she stopped abruptly.

“Oh, hello, Miss Trent,” the man said, as though noticing her for the first time.

“Orlando, I almost forgot. Put these in the lockbox. They’re for 9H.” She stepped over and handed him a set of keys with a tag on them.

“One of Mr. Hall’s units. Yes, ma’am.”

“I should leave him a note.” She reached into her calfskin bag, a Chanel 2.55 from the late Fifties, and removed a small leather folio that held monogrammed notepaper and envelopes. She uncapped a 1943 fountain pen and wrote

Dear Porter,

I need to talk to you, seriously. I regret this didn’t work for us although I really tried.  It would have been wonderful, but as we both know, some things are meant to be, others are not.  See you at lunch. Ask for Babie, Baby.

Love,

                           Jamie

She glanced at her watch.

“This is silly. He’ll be on his way to meet me when he gets this.” She recapped her pen, a Parker supposedly like Hemingway’s, and stuck it in her purse.

She wadded the notepaper. Orlando extended a hand to take it, but Jamie tossed it over his shoulder. It banked off the wall and landed in a wastebasket. She winked at him.

“Two,” he said, and smiled.

“If you see Porter, please tell him I’m at the restaurant.”

She half-turned, then looked back at Orlando, who had started toward the room where the lockbox was kept. “Wait, Orlando. I’m going to keep those. I’ve got a meeting with…” She looked briefly toward the front door, deep concern visible even in the mediocre resolution of the security camera. “I’ll drop them off later.”

He handed the keys back. She slipped them in the side pocket of her jacket and walked out the revolving door into the calm October light of East Twenty-second Street. Camera Three, an exterior camera, showed her heading west toward Fifth Avenue. She looked as good from the back as she did from the front. That was at 11:17 a.m.

Later, the shot from an interior camera would show another man exiting the curtained door behind the concierge desk. He reached into the wastebasket, removed the wadded notepaper, opened it, and read it. He said something to the concierge, which was unclear because the two girls were passing by and their chatter muddled the sound.

The man re-crumpled the paper, dropped it back into the wastebasket, and followed them. He removed a cell phone from his pocket, punched a button, held it to his ear, and fell in behind the young women, his eyes affixed to their rear ends as though he were assigned to count the stitches on their jeans.

On the other side of Broadway, Jamie used a pay phone. She was the only real estate agent in Manhattan who didn’t own a cell phone, maybe the only one in the universe. She checked in with her office, told them she had a two o’clock meeting. She didn’t say with whom. She also asked her assistant to confirm a three o’clock showing at a condo in Chelsea.

She reached the restaurant, Kates, at 11:35, where she was greeted with kisses on both cheeks by Tall Kate, a pretty, mocha-skinned African-American woman who was one of the owners. Kate told her that her table, in the back room against the Hepburn wall, would be ready in a few minutes.

The restaurant was owned by Tall Kate Masters, who wasn’t all that tall except when compared to her co-owner, Just Kate O’Meara. “Short Kate” was a more obvious nickname, but O’Meara, at five-two, disliked it.

The décor was all “Kates,” floor-to-ceiling with photos and memorabilia of the famous: Kate Hepburn, Kate (Katherine) the Great, k.d. lang, Katie Couric, Kate Winslett, Cate Blanchett, others.

But it was Kate Hepburn that Jamie Trent worshipped, having once seen her on Third Avenue as the icon pushed heavy snow into the gutter in front of her townhouse. Jamie stared for a few moments until Hepburn looked at her. Her head had a slight tremor, but her eyes were clear and steady, piercing. Hepburn smiled. Jamie smiled back, flushed, and started across the street, almost stepping into the path of an oncoming taxi.

The actress once dubbed “The Most Powerful Woman in Hollywood” returned to clearing her walk.

Jamie thanked Tall Kate and took a seat at the bar. She removed a book, Ship of Fools, from her bag and began to read. Just Kate was behind the massive oak-front bar, which, along with the mirrored back bar, had been extracted from her grandfather’s defunct Irish pub in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She looked at the cover. “Oh, my. Another Kate.”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Jamie, looking at Katherine Ann Porter’s name across the top.

“We should make a place for her,” said Tall Kate.

By 12:15, Porter still wasn’t there. Jamie went outside and stood, looking toward Fifth Avenue, the direction from which he would likely come. She went back inside to a pay phone near the restrooms. At 12:19, the records would show, she placed a call to his home, and a minute later to his cell phone. She left messages both places saying she was at Kates, and leaving the number.

At 12:30, Jamie was still at the bar and growing concerned. Porter might be ten minutes late, but beyond that he would call. She had known him for ten years, and dated him for one, long ago, before he’d met Laurie. He would call. Something bad had happened. She was sure of it. A waitress working the sidewalk tables came in and said a man outside was asking for her, saying Porter Hall wanted to see her. Jamie slid off the stool, took two steps toward the door, went back and grabbed her purse. She left her second Perrier, her book, and unpaid tab on the bar.

At one o’clock, Just Kate noticed Jamie’s book, check, and Perrier still on the bar. She picked them up and headed to the back room to take them to her. Two other women were at the table. She found Tall Kate and asked if she had seen Jamie.

“I guess something came up.”

Kate O’Meara shook her head. “She left these.”

“So?”

“In the book.”

Tall Kate opened the book and saw the unpaid check for two small bottles of Perrier. “Oh, my God,” she said, her face going a shade paler. “We better call.”

They went to their tight windowless office, where Just Kate picked up the phone, called the Thirteenth Precinct on East Twenty-first Street, and explained the situation to a sergeant.

“Some chick walked a six dollar check? Hold on. I’ll put out a BOLO, an APB, an Amber Alert. Want a SWAT team, maybe National Guard, too?”

“You don’t get it, officer. Jamie wouldn’t walk a six-cent check and we don’t care about that anyway, and she wouldn’t leave her book. She’s the most…”

“No, you don’t get it, lady. I got a stack of files on my desk, domestic violence, sexual assault, grand theft auto, breaking and entering, two murders, you name it, and you want me to go after some gal who beat a six buck check a half hour ago? Keep the book and call it even.”

Just Kate’s freckled Irish face turned a brilliant red and she screamed at the phone. “Not go after her, find her. And it’s not the money. She stayed until four in the morning helping us clean up after a broken pipe and wouldn’t even let us give her lunch the next day. If you…”

“Well, la-ti-da, call me heartless, call me lazy, call me in two days and file a report.” said the officer, “If she don’t show up.”

Her head dropped and tears burned her eyes. She looked at Tall Kate. “They don’t know. They don’t care.” Her hands were trembling.

“What can we do?”

How could they explain that the pope was more likely to rob a bank than Jamie Trent was to walk a check? Her ethics were as stubborn and old-fashioned as her wardrobe, and to Jamie right was right, wrong was wrong, and things were just that simple.

The inescapable conclusion is that had Porter Hall left his place at the Medora condominium when he was supposed to, Jamie Trent would not have disappeared. But he got caught up in some crisis of his own, and it wasn’t until the three-story clock on the Met Life tower outside his window began to gong noon that he realized the time. He grabbed his jacket and cell phone, found his sunglasses, which had mysteriously made their way to his daughter’s vanity, hurried to the elevators, and pushed the call button. The elevator came in thirty seconds and stopped five times on the way down.

When he reached the lobby, he checked the time: 12:04. He stepped out of the elevator and almost bumped into Marvin Plockman, who worked for the management company. Plockman was on his phone.

He said, “Marvin, hey. I need to talk to you.”

Plockman raised a finger, nodded over his shoulder, and kept walking. He went through a metal door marked STAFF ONLY, which led to a service corridor.

“Marvin, it’s important,” Porter called. The door thunked shut behind him.

Porter shrugged. “Yeah, call me later. That’s fine.”

Just then Orlando, the concierge, appeared carrying a Styrofoam cup and a paper bag with the logo of a neighborhood sandwich shop. He was on his way to the break room, accessed by the same door Marvin Plockman had disappeared into.

“Oh, Mr. Hall. Miss Trent said to tell you she’s waiting at the restaurant. She still has the keys to 9H. That’s the only set.”

“Thanks. And if you see Plockman back there, tell him to call me.”

Porter turned into the long lobby, a faux-1890s concoction with oak-paneled walls, period furniture, imitation Bierstadt, Eakins and Durant nature scenes, and copper compact-fluorescent fixtures made to look like the gas sconces you might find in a Victorian theater.

At that moment two men in bad suits entered the front door. Two minutes earlier, even one minute earlier, and Porter would have missed them. He would have been gone, out the glass doors, walking briskly toward Kates, where he would have arrived at 12:10. He would have gone to Jamie at the bar, put his hand on her shoulder, kissed her cheek, and said, “Hi, Babie.” They would have walked to the table that awaited them beneath framed original posters of Bringing Up Baby, Adam’s Rib, and The Philadelphia Story.

But that Wednesday, Porter Hall wasn’t a minute earlier, so she was gone. By 12:30, when she really needed him to be there, he was blocks away, cuffed to a metal bench in the local precinct. His eyes were closed, and a song about a candy-colored clown they call the sandman was playing in his head.

Jamie Trent is gone and Porter Hall is the reason. He failed her. It’s just that simple.

He believes that.

I believe that.

I’m Porter Hall.

Dad’s Flag: What It Means To Be an American

Image

This is the flag that was presented to my mother following my father’s memorial service. It was presented by a young corporal in dress uniform from the honor guard. His hands were shaking, and there were tears in his eyes.

During World War II, my father served primarily in North Africa and Italy. Those years were arguably the most significant of his ninety-five, yet he seldom spoke about them. Only in his last year, my mother said, did he begin to talk about that time. One of the things he did say was that never did a day go by when he didn’t think about it.

My father was distant, non-communicative by nature. Then came Vietnam, and it got worse. We barely spoke for a decade. I was an activist. One day my mother was driving to the school where she taught first grade, listening to the radio, when a story came on about a major anti-war demonstration at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. According to the radio, I was the one who organized it. That wasn’t entirely accurate. I just happened to be the spokesperson.

My father was a civil service construction inspector. Among other things, he inspected missile silos. He had a high security clearance. When the FBI investigated me, as they did thousands who were vocal in their criticism of the War in Vietnam, they interviewed him. I’ve always wondered what he said. If I file an FOI request, I might be able to find out.

As with most of his generation, my father could not comprehend the “anti-Americanism” of my generation. How could we debase their sacrifice? What the hell did his generation fight WWII for?

Conversely, my generation could not comprehend the willingness of his generation to support what we saw as a quickstep toward totalitarianism and repression. Watergate was the clincher. For an American president to attempt to subvert the electoral process was vile. Just about anything else you could get away with, including the assassination of foreign leaders, but to try to undercut a presidential election was beyond the pale. I still don’t think Nixon should have been pardoned. What the hell did his generation fight WWII for?

On the idea that  you should simply do what your government tells you and shut up, he never backed down. Neither did I. I believed, and still do, in the responsibility of the individual to stand in the way of wrong, as his generation had done in the trenches of Europe. I believe in that even when the perpetrator of the wrong is the U.S. government. He and I never agreed about that. We never even agreed to disagree. Eventually, however, we did put all that to the side and focus on things we could agree on. Like the Denver Broncos. Thank God for the NFL. Thank God for John Elway.

My father and I never came to an agreement on what it means to be an American. And that, for anyone who doesn’t know, is exactly what it means to be an American.