As well as his justly admired series about Wyoming game warden Joe Pickett, C J Box has also written a couple of well-received standalone novels (Blue Heaven and Three Weeks To Say Goodbye), books which have deservedly won him the attention of a wider audience. Back of Beyond is another of these standalones: though the main character here, Cody Hoyt, is in Three Weeks to Say Goodbye and the events in that novel are briefly alluded to, Back of Beyond stands in its own right and you certainly don’t have to have read the previous novel to enjoy this one.
Cody has moved on since Three Weeks (not entirely voluntarily) and is now serving as a detective in the Montana mountains. He’s a mess: a chain-smoking alcoholic who is divorced and barely sees the son whom he loves; in other words just the kind of self-indulgent, staple character I loathe. As the novel opens, Cody is sent out to the backwoods after two hikers call the police station to report finding a dead body in a burnt-out shack. At first, it seems as if the victim died by falling into a drunken stupour and leaving the wood stove door open, but the unseasonal rains mean that enough clues are left in the shell of the building for Cody suspect that the death is not natural. He calls in his colleague Lionel (who helps to keep him on the straight and narrow) who in turn calls the sheriff and the unpleasant coroner – both men standing for re-election, hence the coroner brings a journalist with him to the scene. Cody soon realises that he probably knows the victim, in which case he is sure that the mode of death is definitely not self-inflicted, but in order to persuade his colleagues of this inner knowledge he sets up an incompetent trap, resulting in him being suspended from duty.
Here the novel begins to get distinctive. Cody has his reasons to want to track down the killer (assuming there is one) off the books, ideally with Lionel’s help. Soon he discovers that the victim was about to go on a guided trek in Yellowstone Park – and some digging reveals that it’s likely that the perpetrator is going on the same trek in order to kill someone else. When Cody finds out the schedule, he realises that his own son Justin is on the list. The unlikeliness of this coincidence is explained by the fact that this particular trek is only available once a year, to a part of the (highly regulated) park that is not open to the public and along a route known only to one or two veteran park rangers. The book then shifts several gears as Cody juggles all the balls in order to help his son, which includes battling with his own addictions, being attacked and in lots of danger, plenty of classic detective work and the seemingly hopeless need to hastily acquire the outdoors skills necessary to follow the Yellowstone trekkers on their ambitious journey before the killer strikes.
C J Box cleverly merges his plot with his knowledge and love of the American wilderness, in particular Yellowstone Park (as vividly depicted in an earlier series novel, Free Fire). The sections about the trek itself have a strong Agatha Christie air to them, as we get to know the various personalities on the trail and wonder why they are there – and which of them might be who Cody is seeking. At the same time, Cody is on his own inner journey and we wonder if he’ll change as a result of his quest -- not least when he loses his cigarettes and stash of booze.
Back of Beyond is an exciting book to read, transcending the standard mystery plot by providing a protagonist who can choose to become more mature and responsible via the challenges he faces, as well as a varied and puzzling mix of circumstances and locations. This book is a perfect introduction to the novels of C J Box – or if you have read his earlier books, you’ll find this one very satisfying.