This was another book that I was tempted to buy when Amazon was offering it at the bargain price of just 99p as part its Kindle Daily Deal. Whilst the titles offered through this can be somewhat hit and miss, it's an excellent way of trying a new author for minimal financial risk. This time, the gamble paid off.
Cody Hoyt is a police detective and recovering alcoholic who is hiding out in a small town near Yellowstone National Park whilst he tries to get his life back together. When Cody's Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor is killed in a fire, Cody suspects arson. The trail leads him into Yellowstone following a party of trekkers who might unwittingly have a killer amongst them. The mission becomes personal for Cody once he discovers that his own son is amongst the party.
My first thought when I read the plot summary was "oh no; not another 'maverick cop with issues' book". It's not that I've got anything against such books, but there are rather a lot of them. Thankfully, whilst Back of Beyond starts off this way, it soon transforms into something slightly different and ends up being a great suspense thriller that will keep you hooked.
Back of Beyond is particularly successful at building a sense of conspiracy. From the early stages, it's pretty clear that someone connected with the police department is working against Hoyt, feeding information to his enemies but until the very last pages, it's never clear who this is. This really adds to a feeling of paranoia in both character and reader, as you are unsure who can be trusted. Some authors would overcook this element, casting suspicion multiple characters and tantalising the reader with hints as to the identity of the real culprit. Box doesn't; he just leaves the various characters to get on with their roles. None do anything particularly suspicious so any one of them could be the mole and you are kept guessing throughout the book. By the end, you will have narrowed it down to a number of different suspects, but you won't be absolutely sure until Box reveals his hand.
He does the same with the main bad guy, too. A couple are pretty obvious from the start, and Box hides these in plain sight. Yet, as you might expect, this is not the full story and more secrets lurk within the group so that several people are ultimately revealed to have ulterior motives. Box plays an excellent sleight of hand, keeping things cleverly covered up until he is ready to reveal the details; something which makes for a very satisfying read.
Box achieves this through very effective and careful use of his characters. Whilst Hoyt is the main character, Box brings in lots of supporting characters and frequently switches the narrative focus between what Hoyt is doing and what is happening with the trekking party. Box spends quite a bit of time with one group of characters, building up to some sort of cliff-hanger before switching back to a different set of characters. Crucially, though, he doesn't switch between characters too rapidly (which can be frustrating) or linger with one set for too long (which can be tedious). This has the effect of gradually increasing the tension as Box leaves you dangling; wondering what is going to happen next.
Despite (or perhaps because of) his weaknesses, Hoyt proves to be a very likeable lead. Initially he comes across as rather selfish, thoughtless and reckless. As you read on, though, Box builds him into a character the reader can root for. Even though he slowly becomes more likeable he always retains a darker side and is constantly battling his own demons, which makes him much more interesting than a straightforward "good guy" role would have been.
It's certainly true that the plot relies on some rather large leaps of logic, particularly when it comes to following the tourist party into Yellowstone. Hoyt and his colleague come up with the flimsiest of reasons as to why the killer is likely to be on this. There are other elements of the plot which don't really stand up to close scrutiny if you stop and think about them, too. Thankfully, it's such a well-constructed thriller that when you are reading this it doesn't actually matter; it sweeps you along so that you don't once stop and think "that's stupid". It's only once you've finished it that you realise it was all a bit, well, silly. And by the time that thought occurs you don't care because you've enjoyed it too much.
In many ways, Back of Beyond comes across as ideal blockbuster material. You wouldn't have been at all surprised to see a film version of it starring Sylvester Stallone back in the 1990s. It's fast-paced, light plotted and contains enough suspense and action to keep people entertained without being too crass, dumb and obvious.
Back of Beyond is available for around £4 (in either print or Kindle edition). Whilst it might not do anything particularly different or new, it's an enjoyable read that will keep you hooked right up until the last page.
Back of Beyond
C J Box
© Copyright SWSt 2012