If you are already familiar with C.J. Box, it’s probably through his popular series featuring Joe Pickett, the Wyoming game warden often called upon to solve crimes far beyond the realm of hunting and wildlife. This new novel is his fourth stand-alone. But don’t let that stop you from reading it. THE HIGHWAY is a superbly written, wonderfully effective and suspenseful thriller, and easily among Box’s best.
Danielle Sullivan and her younger sister, Gracie, are driving to Omaha to visit their father for Thanksgiving weekend. Then Danielle, the driver, announces that they are instead going to Montana to visit Justin Hoyt, a former boyfriend she hopes to win back. But shortly after their car breaks down on a dark stretch of highway near Yellowstone National Park, the two girls disappear.
Cody Hoyt, Justin’s father, is a police investigator who recently lost his job due to his rouge methods. When he learns about the missing teens, he abruptly stops drowning himself with booze and sets out to find them. Cody enlists the help of Cassie Dewell, his former rookie partner, who monitors his drive along the Montana highway via the internet.
Soon, Cassie discovers that Danielle and Gracie are not the first young women reported missing from that stretch of highway. She desperately sends a warning to Cody that a suspected killer is stalking the interstate roads and truck stops. What Cassie and Cody don’t know is that the killer will not allow anyone to interfere with his hunt for female prey.
Box has always excelled in his descriptive prose about the majestic, often unspoiled wildlife settings of his novels. Here, however, he proves equally adept at evoking the eerie loneliness of late nights on highways, the terror caused by huge headlights approaching from behind, and the odd and exhausting ordeal of long-haul truckers.
Also impressive are his character portrayals. Cassie constantly wrestles with her admiration for Cody — even in the face of his often-illegal methods — as well as her own insecurities and self-doubts. Box has long known and detailed the stark differences between law-enforcement techniques of the cities and the more rustic settings of his stories. This is especially true here, even with the added benefit of laptops and smartphones. The central antagonist, despite his highly psychotic nature, is never less than believable. Finally, Box’s ear for dialogue between Danielle and Gracie, as well as their mood swings, is dead-on.
All these ingredients mix into the classic — but no less than dynamic — race against the clock as the police investigators trace the whereabouts of the girls before they meet their horrifying fate at the hands of their abductor.
Those who thought the mean streets were restricted to only urban settings should immediately pick up THE HIGHWAY, especially if you are new to the world and works of Box. Watch for this to end up on several “best thriller” lists as the year ends.
If nothing else, reading it will cause you to think twice the next time one of those long, multiwheel trucks bullies past you on the highway. —Alan Cranis