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

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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.