Author: C. J. Box

Title: Back of Beyond

Publisher: Minotaur Books

Hikers beware. You likely don't think of mauling, murder, and mayhem in conjunction with Yellowstone National Park.  True, the scenic national treasure is home to wild animals and rugged terrain, but in award-winning novelist C.J. Box's latest thriller, the real danger lies in human hands. 

Back of Beyond takes readers on a harrowing, murderous trek through the gorgeous but perilous wilderness of northern Wyoming. When outfitter Jed McCarthy leads a group of tourists on a week-long horseback tour, members of his motley group start finding trouble. Factions begin to form, accidents start to happen, and Jed inexplicably deviates from his usual routine. Something is seriously off-kilter. 

In the meantime, local cop Cody Hoyt—a recovering alcoholic (sort of)—finds the body of his old friend and mentor inside the charred remains of his backcountry cabin. The "accidental death" looks too staged to Hoyt, and soon clues add up, leading him to believe that his friend's unknown murderer has joined McCarthy's tourist group. This puts Hoyt into a panic, because his son, Justin, is also on that trip. 

Going rogue, Hoyt pursues McCarthy into the wilderness, determined to save his son. As his partner in the sheriff's office continues to investigate, disparate clues start coming together to help Hoyt identify the killer. But, is he right? And will he get there on time?

I was stunned to learn the killer's identity and motives. Box subtly wove together tiny strands of character background, mixed them with the more prominent crime and chase scenes, and produced a shocking resolution.

The backcountry of Yellowstone becomes a character in itself, its unique qualities necessary to the plot and helping move events along. The author's scene-ending cliff-hangers are masterful, keeping the tension high and the rate of page-turning rapid.

But while the plot moved quickly and dramatically, the characters were equally as crucial to the success of the story. Hoyt is one of the more complex heroes I've encountered recently. He regrets his addictions, his failed marriage, and his absentee fatherhood. He considers himself broken by nature.  "Cody was not good and he was incapable of being good, but that didn't mean he didn't recognize and revere goodness, and he'd do anything—anything—to protect those blessed with clean, unimpeded wiring…like Justin, his miracle son, whom he had to save." Justin is the one positive factor in Hoyt's life right now, and his risky efforts to rescue the teen become a source of redemption for him. Secondary characters are also well-developed, adding depth and color and humor to a deadly situation.

By the end of the story, the Yellowstone trail is littered with bodies and regrets. Box is unflinching in describing desecrated remains, so if you have a weak stomach, don't eat before reading. I personally didn't see the need for all the crude language. Cursing can be carefully used to reveal a character's or event's emotions, but some instances in this book seemed gratuitous.

Fans of C.J. Box will happily include Back of Beyond to their collection, and newcomers to Box may well add him to their list of favorite authors.  

*This article first published 8/22/2011