Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Blue HeavenBlue Heaven by C.J. Box
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"If twelve-year-old Annie Taylor had not chosen to take her little brother William fishing on that particular Friday afternoon [...], she would never have seen the execution or looked straight into the eyes of the executioners."

The first sentence of C.J Box's Blue Heaven (2007) illustrates the best thing about the novel that won the prestigious Edgar Award in 2009. The setup is mesmerizing and it is difficult to tear oneself off from the book for about 100 pages. Then the plot goes downhill to the extent that I am actually surprised about the high critical recognition. Yes, it is a good thriller, but not in any way remarkable. Maybe I am just jaded or spoiled.

The story is located in North Idaho, the "Idaho Panhandle", called Blue Heaven because many Los Angeles cops choose to retire there. Little Annie and William witness the execution and now they are pursued by the executioners. The retired cops are looking for the kids too, but they don't want FBI to get involved. Yet another retired detective from California arrives on the scene in pursuit of leads in an unsolved murder that happened during the Santa Anita Racetrack robbery. Potential connections between the executioners and the robbery begin to emerge yet the second half of the novel is not nearly as enthralling as the first one.

One thread is indeed outstanding: Jess Rawlins, an owner of a huge ranch is about to lose everything as he cannot afford the payments to the bank any more. Bitterly divorced, he is trying to keep the ranch that his grandfather and father managed but the new economic reality is brutal: he seems to have no chances in the market driven by banks and real estate. The reader will like Jess' character as it is vividly and believably drawn.

I have an emotional connection with the location of the novel. The fictional town of Kootenai Bay in Idaho is located in the real Kootenai country, close to the Pend Oreille Lake north of Coeur d'Alene. My wife and I were traveling there two years ago and I remember writing a review for Goodreads in a motel room not that far from Kootenai Falls on the Kootenai River that are in fact located in Montana, the neighboring state. These are amazingly beautiful places and there are some neat descriptions of the northern landscapes in the novel.

Alas, other than the enticing setup the thriller is mostly of paint-by-numbers variety and once the reader shakes off the strong initial impression there is nothing equally remarkable in the later parts of the novel. Some characters, like the mail carrier for instance, are implausible caricatures. The author's dropping of ominous hints is not exactly of Edgar Award caliber. The climactic scenes at the end are boringly predictable: salvation comes at exactly the most convenient time for the narration. The shootout scene is totally cliché. In the end the author carefully doles out death and life to the protagonists according to whether they deserve it or not. Lame!

To sum up: extremely good novel at the beginning, disappointing at the end. I recommend just browsing the second half of the book: life is too short for banal denouements.

Three stars.

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