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C.J. Box has been quietly but steadily developing a second series alongside his iconic Joe Pickett canon. These novels would be the loosely connected BACK OF BEYOND and THE HIGHWAY, the latter of which introduced detective Cassie Dewell. The sequential connection firms up in the newly published BADLANDS, which finds Cassie at the crossroads of her career and life in a setting that is the closest thing to an American frontier in the 21st century.

BADLANDS takes place over the course of six long days but begins on opposite ends of the country. When we initially encounter Cassie, she is in North Carolina to hopefully identify the serial murderer known as the Lizard King. The stakes, as set forth in THE HIGHWAY, are professional and personal, but the results of her visit are decidedly mixed. Cassie does get some good news while on this errand of justice. As a result, she takes a job as the new deputy sheriff of Bakken County, North Dakota. Sheriff Jon Kirkbride, a veteran, tough-but-fair law enforcement officer, has his hands full. He suspects some corruption within his department and wants Cassie to ferret it out if it’s there.

"Cassie Dewell is a complex and multi-faceted protagonist who is one of the more interesting characters to emerge from the thriller genre over the past couple of years."

Of equal importance, though, is the challenge of enforcing the law for the Bakken County Sheriff’s Department. Grimstad, the county seat, has experienced an economic steroid injection in the form of an oil boom. While the economic benefits for the town (not to mention the country) are almost immeasurable, the infrastructure of the town and county is at pains to keep up with it and seems to be fighting a losing battle on all fronts. Nature abhors a vacuum, and nowhere is that more true than in the supply and demand of illegal substances and activities. The result is that each and all of the pre-boom residents are feeling the effect of the windfall, for better and worse.

One of these residents is Kyle Westergaard, a 12-year-old boy who has been dealt a bad hand. Kyle is a victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, which has left him with a number of burdens, including communication problems and, in all probability, a place on the autism spectrum. Still, he stands head and shoulders above his mother, a drug addict who can’t get it together to drive him on his paper route in sub-zero weather, and her boyfriend, a live-in loser named T-Lock, who is little more than a waste of skin. Kyle experiences a life-changing moment when he witnesses an automobile accident and in its aftermath finds a package loaded with cash and drugs. He brings it home, dreaming of using the money for a better life for himself and his mother. As one might expect, things don’t work out that way.

Kyle’s wrongful, if well-intentioned, act goes sideways when T-Lock discovers the package and its contents and immediately sets up a plan of his own, which is obviously doomed from the start. T-Lock winds up bringing his family into contact with the MS-13s, a criminal organization comprised of some of the worst human beings on the planet. They, too, are looking for the bundle and will go to almost unimaginable lengths to get it back. As the gang cuts an extremely visible and violent swath through the oil community, Kyle and his family are exposed to the worst possible danger.

Meanwhile, Cassie finds that her investigation of the sheriff’s department slowly but inexorably puts her on a collision with the drug trade in Bakken County, with Kyle right in the middle. The result is an exciting and frightening climax from which few emerge intact.

Cassie Dewell is a complex and multi-faceted protagonist who is one of the more interesting characters to emerge from the thriller genre over the past couple of years. Box has wisely resisted the temptation to transplant Joe Pickett’s personality onto her, so that there is a clear delineation between the story sets. Further exploration into Cassie’s world is implied, if not promised, and if her path crosses Pickett’s at some point, I would certainly welcome it.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on July 31, 2015

by C. J. Box

  • Publication Date: August 2, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
  • ISBN-10: 0312546904
  • ISBN-13: 9780312546908