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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Badlands by C. J. Box

Minotaur Books, 288 pages, $26.99 (release date - 7/28/15)

What C. J. Box does so well is create characters with depth. Men, women, children — he understands the whole range of humanity and deftly drafts them for his stories.

In “Badlands,” it is a handicapped twelve-year-old boy who is inadvertently at the center of a drug war in his town. To help out his family -- consisting of a recovering addict mother and her no-account, layabout boyfriend -- Kyle has a job delivering newspapers early in the morning. In the middle of winter in Grimstad, North Dakota, that's not such a good thing: “The vinyl covering of his bicycle seat had actually shattered into shards that morning when he sat on it.”

One morning he sees a car accident. Something flies from the ruined car and Kyle picks it up. It is a bag of high-quality drugs slated for sale, primarily in the burgeoning population of oil workers in Grimstad. The frakking industry has brought jobs and inflation and violent crime to a once faltering, quiet community.

What Kyle doesn’t understand about the car accident is that there is another car involved, the one that caused the accident. Two men exit that car and look around the snow-covered ground. Obviously, they are looking for what Kyle has found. Strangely, a police car shows up, too, but instead of calling an ambulance or detaining the two men, the officer also searches the ground.

Into this potentially corrupt environment comes our heroine, Cassie Dewell. She has just left her job in Montana (see “The Highway” by C. J. Box) and taken on the job of Chief Investigator for the Bakken County Sheriff’s Department. Her welcome consists of a dead body, cut into pieces, and strewn all over Grimstad.

Cassie’s eleven-year-old son and hippie mother are slated to follow soon, so she’s anxious to ensure they won’t be moving into hell frozen over. She hasn’t even learned the names of all the other officers and she has to trudge through the frozen landscape looking for drug cartels and bent police. Because Grimstad is the backend of nowhere and boasts a hellacious winter season, and because of the sudden wealth and resulting inflation oil has brought to the area, Bakken County has paid Cassie a bigger salary than she could hope to earn elsewhere and has even included a three-bedroom apartment. She needs to make this job work.

Running in the background of “The Badlands” is a story arc from “The Highway.” The Lizard King, a notorious serial killer, has eluded the authorities for a long time. Cassie’s burning desire is to capture him and, if possible, witness his death. Authorities in North Carolina think they have him, but will they be able to keep him? And if they can’t, will he follow up his aborted attempt to kill Cassie and track her down?

Box can write the heck out of the "New Wild West.” Except for Craig Johnson, Box pits man against nature and man against man better than anyone. He can write believable female characters. He can write children without a precocious adult overtone. He could probably write the phone book and make it thrilling.

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