First, a disclaimer: "Blue Heaven" is the first of Mr. Box's novels that I have read, and I picked it up because it won an Edgar (I was hooked after reading the Kindle "free sample" first chapter, in which two children witness a murder and are pursued through the woods). This is a review of "Blue Heaven", not a polemic on the relative merits of book awards, but I will make a brief digression on the subject:
Reading award-winners is not a strategy I often follow, but I like the Edgar awards (and the Mystery Writers of America), because they seem relatively free of the pretension, vanity, and faddish-ness that pervades other literary awards. Therefore I at least try to peruse the fiction nominees and winners. There are so many books out there, and without the Edgars I would never have been aware of Mr. Box's novel. So thank you, MWA.
Now, back to "Blue Heaven". Other reviewers have perceptively noted that this is a modern Western, in ways both subtle and obvious. The obvious western touches include the setting--it takes place in the Mountain West (North Idaho)--and a hero who is, literally, a cowboy. The less-obvious Western hallmarks are found in the narrative structure. Much like a classic Western, the bad guys are known from the beginning (it is not a mystery in the classic sense). Furthermore, the novel builds to an inevitable showdown between the hero and the villains, a final, frenzied scene of violence that would not be out of place in a dusty, sun-bleached frontier town of the late 19th century.
Although the villains are revealed at the outset, Mr. Box takes more time to explain the motives for their crimes, but the "why" is never really important. Indeed, the back-story of the original crime that motivates the rest of the narrative is one of the book's weak points, but the novel is little affected by it. Mr. Box seems to understand the concept that Alfred Hitchcock famously labeled "the MacGuffin". That is, the motivating crime doesn't really matter if the characters are compelling and the action is well-written. Mr. Box succeeds admirably on both counts, and it's enough to know that these dudes did something bad, and they don't want anyone to know about it.
After slogging through another Lee Child book (my last, I assure you--I had read one before and did not like it much, and decided to give him another chance since he seems to be so popular...a complete waste of time), it was refreshing to pick up "Blue Heaven" and encounter such richly drawn characters. Whereas Mr. Child's Jack Reacher is inhuman and boring, Jess Rawlins is an immensely sympathetic hero who is also (GASP!) 63 years old, a cuckold, and on the verge of losing his ranch due to financial mismanagement. He is divorced and estranged from his only child. He is also a man out of touch with the times, cut from an older cloth of simplicity, duty and honor; he is at once pitiful and admirable. This ambivalence carries over to Mr. Box's other characters. The author does an admirable job of creating figures who inhabit a world of real emotion--of joy and sorrow, ambition and greed, success and failure, hope and disappointment, and of love, as well. They live lives in which decisions have consequences, often unanticipated and far-reaching.
Mr. Box balances his cast of characters throughout the story, frequently changing perspectives as the narrative progresses through an extremely busy weekend. Juggling all of these points of view while sustaining coherence and momentum is no mean feat, and Mr. Box largely succeeds. There are a few miscues. For example, (spoiler alert) it's never entirely clear why an apparent samaritan who turns out to be one of the villains fails to hand the witnesses over to his co-conspirators. But overall, the plot development is engaging and exciting.
As I mentioned above, I am not familiar with Mr. Box's other work. Upon reading this book, I was left impressed by his plotting and characterizations, and somewhat disappointed by his style. He has a knack for evoking personal detail and drawing compelling sketches of his characters, and he writes action sequences with the brisk, simple style that befits them. But throughout the novel I encountered wince-inducing turns of phrase that should have been weeded out by a good editor. "Blue Heaven" is riddled with amateurish writing, which is why I was surprised when I discovered that Mr. Box had so many other, prior books. I repeatedly found myself taken in by the story, only to be jolted by some very poor writing choices. It's unfortunate, because it mars what is an otherwise entertaining and ambitious book.
It could have been great, but I'll settle for very, very good.