Back of Beyond (review)

C J Box’s Back of Beyond reads like a rush project. It has an intriguing premise, a hook that locks in your interest early, but almost nothing else. The plot doesn’t work, the characters are cartoons, the action is filler unconvincing and unnecessary, the solution is unsatisfying and the writing is … I was going to say "ridiculous," because it sometimes is, but you know, there are some really nice passages in here too.

The hook is masterful. Cody Hoyt, the most unbelievable "broken cop" cliche I’ve read in a long time (this guy is so thoroughly violent and alcoholic it’s really difficult to believe he’s even employable at 7/11, let alone a police department), gets a call about a cabin that burned in the woods. Well, mostly burned – it’s been raining a lot recently, and the rain squelched the fire before it could get the whole place. He recognizes the location: it’s where his AA sponsor lived. And, sure enough, it’s his AA sponsor burned to death in the fire. It’s set up to look like an accident – a man gets drunk, drops his bourbon near the fire and BOOM! – but Cody knows that Hank wouldn’t fall off the wagon this easily and thoroughly, and in any case he can’t find his AA chips lying around anywhere, as though they’ve been deliberately thrown away. Which is the first place where the plot starts to swerve off the road, actually, since we’re soon asked to entertain the idea that there’s a serial killer who’s targeting AA members and covering up the murders by making it look like they burned themselves to death. It’s a GREAT premise, because just who the hell would do that? What would the motive be? It can’t be "I’m a psychopathic serial killer and Alcoholics Anonymous really PISSES ME OFF" because such a person wouldn’t cover up their crimes. It reels you in.

But of course, if you’re trying to stage an arson murder to look like an alcoholic accident, you probably don’t throw away the AA chips – because whatever else they do, they do a damn good job of emphasizing that the person you just burned to death was an alcoholic. Not to mention, if you’re counting on the whole place burning to the ground, you probably don’t have to worry about removing the chips anyway – 9 times in 10 they’ll perish in the fire too, end up a pile of plastic indistinguishable from Gatorade bottles. So, that was a serious miscalculation – the first, unfortunately, of a great many.

The cool thing about the premise is how impossible it is. There’s just no way anyone is systematically murdering AA members all across the country. Therefore, there can’t actually be anything linking them, and it’s just a giant coincidence. In the hands of a philosophically thoughtful master like Håkan Nesser, that would’ve been the "twist" to a really interesting story with believable characters and top-notch writing. But Box is writing a soap opera, so instead it turns out to be (SPOILER ALERT!!!) that all of these people attended an AA meeting on vacation where a drug dealer told them where a bunch of money crashed with a plane.

Seriously, dude?

It gets worse.

Imagine that you were a druglord, and you had a plane with lots of cash in it crash on you in Yellowstone. How would you go about retrieving the cash? Would you send an expedition of your own people out to find it IMMEDIATELY, and maybe-maybe-not get around to murdering the people your uncle blabbed to in his AA meeting later? Or would you waste a year in which regular search-and-rescue might turn up the plane murdering all the people who may or may not end up going after your money and only then, when you’d done that, embed yourself in a tourist group that just so happens to be hiking near where the plane went down?

Because CJ Box is apparently some kind of moron, he thought the second option was even remotely believable and went with that.

It gets worse.

For absolutely no reason whatever, Cody Hoyt’s son turns out to be on the hiking trip. This is apparently to give him a motive to go after the trip – because he suspects there’s a killer on the same hiking trip with his son! But Cody already has a motive to go: this killer killed his sponsor and mentor, one of the most important people in his life at the moment. So, no need to throw the son into the mix, really.

It gets worse.

The man leading the hiking trip somehow knows about the downed plane with the money and wants to go have a looksee himself. But, rather than doing this alone on his own time, he decides instead to do it with his troupe of paying-customer amateur wilderness trekkers, whom he has to get drunk to convince to take a detour near where the plane is, and which he does by feeding them a lie about water levels in the creek being too high, a lie that his hired help sees through instantly. How, exactly, is he planning to get all that money back without anyone on his trip knowing? Was he planning to kill them all?

That, at least, is mercifully never clear. A LOT of people on the trek end up killed, and of the very dim glimmers of light in this otherwise miserable book is that it’s not 100% clear that they were all killed by the same person. The surface narrative leads you to believe that all the bloodshed is at the hands of the daughter (as it turns out) of the druglord who’s gone to recover the dosh, but events are so blurry at that point that it really is possible that the trek leader – or Wilson, one of the trekkers – or even someone else – was responsible for at least some of them. That ambiguity was admittedly pretty cool, and since in spite of everything I think CJ Box has some real talent, it’s even likely this might reward a second read. Well, that section, anyway.

But don’t read this even once. It’s pretty horrible, really. CJ Box gets very good reviews for his "Pickett" series, he certainly knows how to draw in your attention, there are the occasional passages that are very well-written even in this book – so I’m willing to believe that he’s actually a very talented mystery writer. But this is so far from being the book that proves that that I wouldn’t donate it to a prison library. When you get down to it, it reads like one of the Dungeons and Dragons campaigns my friends and I played in junior high. I suspect our group was typical in that the dungeon master came up with some really interesting ideas for stories that, being time constrained and in junior high, he didn’t know how to flesh out. So typically campaigns would start off with some absolutely fascinating setup that turned out to be nothing, and at every turn it was very clear that we the characters were being pushed in one directly or another so that the DM could showcase all is twists. And, for our part, our characters were never all that fleshed out either. That kind of thing.

I will probably read one of the Pickett books someday. But not someday soon. I’m actually angry I finished this.

Overall Rating D+

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