Badlands by C.J. Box is the sequel to The Highway featuring protagonist Cassie Dewell. Dewell is a middle aged, slightly overweight single mom as well as a smart, effective but unappreciated sheriff’s deputy. In The Highway she finds a serial killer (even though he escapes) and kills a rogue cop but still can’t gain the respect of her boss, the sheriff. So, in Badlands we find her leaving Montana for a job in Grimstad, the oil capital of North Dakota, as chief criminal investigator and deputy sheriff in Bakken County.
Grimstad has its problems. Oil fracking has turned the sleepy rural community into a boom town. The explosive rise in population, primarily men, has taxed the town’s amenities including housing, roads, restaurants and entertainment and has attracted criminal types to supply prostitutes and illegal drugs. So Cassie is put to work the minute she arrives and is relieved to find complete trust and professional curtesy from her new boss, Sheriff Kirkbride.
Earlier that day in Grimstad, a twelve year old boy, Kyle Westergaard was delivering newspapers on his bicycle when he witnesses a car being run off the road. It flips over and kills the driver. Kyle sees a package fly from the car and recovers it before police arrive. He takes it home and finds it contains thousands of dollars in cash and a cache of heroin and meth products. Little does Kyle know that this package connects to most all the criminal activity in Grimstad including biker gangs, a violent Salvadoran gang and corrupt police officers.
Kyle’s mother is a recovering drug user and alcoholic who can barely make ends meet with her idiot lazy live-in boyfriend, T-Lock and a part time job at McDonalds. T-Lock latches on to Kyle’s package and makes plans to change his life. But with all the criminal elements in Grimstad hot on getting their hands on the merchandise, T-Lock and therefore, Kyle and his mom don’t stand a chance. Newbie Cassie may be too late, too unfamiliar with her surroundings and too intimidated by the bad guys to help.
C.J. Box creates an interesting story in Badlands. He shows without political prejudice how hydraulic fracturing can change a community in both good and bad ways. He develops a solid protagonist in Cassie Dewell. As a female in a traditionally man’s job, she’s easy to underestimate by her peers and her foes alike (not to mention the reader.) She’s a little short on self-confidence and self-esteem but when the going gets tough, she gets going. She has a deep seated moral code and perseverance that can’t be denied. I think we’re going to see more of Cassie Dewell.