C.J. Box, who's won just about every award there is to win in the crime
fiction world with his ongoing Joe Pickett series, takes a break
to write this stand-alone novel, poised to be that elusive "breakout" book.
Breakout or not, 'Blue Heaven' is a certain winner, a compelling
story of how things can go amiss when those who we anoint as "good
guys" are, in fact, not good guys at all.
"Blue Heaven" is the name Los Angeles cops give to a section
of North Idaho where many elect to retire, where they can live in lavish
and drive fancy cars and enjoy the good life surrounded by a tight knit
group of fellow former cops. With their sheer numbers, these ex-LA cops
have created their own exclusive social strata in an area of exceptional
natural beauty with a population of hardy, unassuming and strongly independent
inhabitants. It's an uneasy mixture of old timers and invading new timers,
a mixture that's just waiting for that certain set of events to ignite
dissent that quickly turns into violence.
Box's story begins when young brother and sister, William and Annie,
witness a cold-blooded murder while they're on a fishing trip. The murderers
are former LAPD police officers whom the kids can readily identify. Knowing
they are in danger, the kids take off in search of safety which, they
quickly learn, is not all that easily found. Jess Rawlins, an old-time
area rancher with weighty personal and financial problems of his own,
becomes their unwitting protector using his still sharp intelligence
and finely honed sense of decency to navigate between those who sincerely
seek justice and those who, despite their law enforcement badges, sincerely
seek self preservation.
As the murderous retired cops commandeer the search for the missing kids
from the inept local sheriff, other townspeople, including William and
Annie's mother, the local bank president, and the local gossip react
to each twist and turn of circumstance in ways that reveal their unique
characters and bring to light the long secret, deeply intertwined roots
of the local culture.
Box's storytelling seems effortless – his pacing is superb, his
attention to detail unsurpassed, and he keeps a sure and steady hand
on both the plotting and the characters so as never to tip the reality
meter into the red zone. He creates a varied cast of characters – young
and old, male and female, those who are honest and honorable and those
who are neither, and makes each come to life with rich descriptions and
realistic dialogue. Episodes of violence (vivid, but not over the top)
are balanced with moments of poignancy that add further depth and veracity
to his story. And, as he does in his Pickett series, Box describes the
natural environment with both rapture and respect, giving it a powerful
presence as a character in its own right.
The narrative tension of 'Blue Heaven' is ultimately rooted in the vividly
described clashes between vastly different cultures, values, families
and communities as well as the plot-driving action. It's a completely
believable page turner that sticks to your ribs long after the final
page is finished.