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C.J. Box
Blue Heaven
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2008

St. Martin's Minotaur
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-312-36570-5
344 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: January, 2008
Date Reviewed: January 23, 2008

Index: Mystery  General Fiction

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 houses 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.

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