In this mystery set in North Idaho, C.J. Box has gathered a diverse group of characters, among them:
A tough and headstrong rancher who is trying to save his family's once-thriving property from creditors
A UPS driver who is dating the mother of two children who turn up missing
A rural mail carrier who has a hankering to be the center of attention, even if she has to get a little fanciful about the tales she tells
Mysterious men spied upon by a young girl who gives them made-up names-Driver, Ball Cap Man, Dark Man, and Wavy-Haired Man
The driver of a red pickup truck who may, or maybe not, be the salvation of two youngsters
A banker who finally understands the shocking consequences of his decisions.
Retired LAPD police officers who seem to find this area just right for their "final resting place"
The local sheriff, a weak-kneed sort, who takes the easiest way out, no matter what harm it may do
A volunteer search party, which includes some volunteers who are up to no good
Box weaves these characters and many others, both two- and four-footed, into an uncompromising, unsentimental, suspenseful tale that, in the manner of a well-plotted hard-boiled mystery, has good and evil built into its characters. Even though we are on the outside looking in, and we see the various threads that weave themselves into this mystery, it isn't easy to separate the good from the evil, and the reader is shoved back and forth between yes-he-did-it-and-no-she-didn't almost from the opening scenes.
Jess, his central character, isn't playing at being a rancher; he is the working owner of a working ranch, as were his father and grandfather before him-and he has no intention of giving up and walking away, leaving his land to be used for purposes he cannot accept. He leads a tough, lonely life these days, making hard decisions that are forced on him by circumstance.
Still, the reader soon sees Jess for what he is-one of the good guys, the really good ones, who try always to make decisions based on what's the best thing for everyone in whatever situation they find themselves in. But Jess is surrounded by corruption and venality, some of it he can see and sense, some of it well hidden, existing in people he should be able to trust.
He soon finds that he must take a step, make a decision that could change his life and that of two innocent youngsters. And not in a good way. But, Jess is Jess, one of the good guys every good mystery needs, and he risks his home, his good name, maybe even his life to find and stamp out the evil that is growing around him.
This story goes to the limit in mystery guessing games, although Box always gives readers a fair chance to decide for ourselves before he outfoxes us. And he sets up interesting conundrums for us to mull over while we're reading, and maybe for days after we've finished the story and the mystery is solved. A well-plotted mystery such as Blue Heaven raises many ethical and moral issues along with the requisite legal ones.
We find ourselves wondering:
Why do men who have spent their lives in law enforcement tarnish the badges they wore for years by falling so far away from their oath to serve and protect?
Why do bankers in a remote mountain community in Idaho fall into today's temptations and find themselves mimicking their counterparts in the financial centers of the country?
Why do some men and women cling to the right path, even when it would be so much easier to just take that one step across the line that separates right from wrong.
Box makes us think about these things, but never steps away from the characterizations he has built, and resists the temptation to lecture his readers as some authors do. Box describes the rugged North Idaho mountain country and its equally rugged residents from the point of view of a man who knows the area and loves it. Jess's love for his ranch and the community around it is easy to see and understand; he belongs in this place and time.
As the story wound its way through treachery and hate and fear, through courage and honesty and love, I found myself so involved with Jess that I almost stopped reading, fearing that Box would end it in what for me would be the wrong way.
But of course I read to the end. Was it the right conclusion to Jess's story, from my point of view? Every writer and every reader knows that there is really no such thing as a right or a wrong way to finish a mystery, or any kind of fiction, for that matter. So I leave that question unanswered.
Blue Heaven is a bang-up good read, lots of action, lots of twists and turns of plot, just the right number of good and evil characters. You'll have to decide for yourself about the conclusion.
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