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BADLANDS by C. J. Box: Book Review

Nothing could be more ordinary than a twelve-year-old boy delivering newspapers so early in the morning that it’s still dark.  And nothing could be more ordinary than a speeding car going off a curving road in that same darkness.  But there’s nothing ordinary in the sequence of events that follow, bringing terror and death to the small town of Grimstad, Wyoming.

Kyle Westergaard has recently acquired a paper route, and he rides his route every morning, his bike heavy with the Tribune.  On this particular morning he sees the car crash that will change his life.

Two town police cars arrive almost immediately at the scene, but separately.  The officers look in the car and realize that nothing can be done for the man inside it, who is definitely dead.  When the two deputies turn and see Kyle, the older one wants to question him but then, looking at him more closely, says to his fellow deputy, “Look, see his face?  He won’t be any help.”  It’s clear from his features that Kyle suffers from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  The short nose, upward slanted eyes, flattened cheekbones, and small head all indicate that Kyle is a boy with major developmental and intellectual disabilities, one who can’t be expected to help the police at all.

What the police don’t know is that a small bundle is thrown from the speeding car as it crashes and that Kyle picks it up and brings it home.  Home is a run-down cottage that houses Kyle, his mother, and his mother’s latest partner, T-Lock.  When Kyle gets home after his paper route is finished he puts the bundle under the garage workbench, but as luck would have it T-Lock finds it and is waiting for the boy when he returns home after school.  T-Lock is all worked up because the package contains both drugs and money, lots of each.  He extracts a promise from Kyle to tell no one, including his mother, by promising that all the money will be spent for Kyle’s mother’s benefit.  Given the difficulty Kyle has talking so that people can understand him, that’s not a difficult promise for him to keep.

The Grimstad police department has a new investigator, Cassie Dewell.  She recently quit her job in Helena, Montana to take this position, a job with a significant increase in pay and a seemingly much smarter and nicer chief of police than she had worked for previously.  But she’s surprised that Jon Kirkbride already has a specific investigation for her to pursue; he’s afraid that one of his officers is crooked and wants Cassie to help find the truth.

C. J. Box, author of the Joe Pickett mysteries, introduced Cassie in The Highway, the first novel in this new series.  She’s smart, tough, and anxious to make a new start for herself and her young son in Grimstad.  But there’s a lot on her plate, including her ambivalence about spying on her fellow officers.

Badlands is a totally engrossing thriller, with a captivating heroine, a great setting, and a realistic plot.  Another plus is the honesty and compassion that comes through when Box is writing about Kyle, his significant difficulties, and the perceptions that people have about him that are often wrong.  Cassie is the heroine of this book, Kyle its hero.

You can read more about C. J. Box at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her web site.