Taking place after the events of Paradise Valley (2017), Box’s latest follows former police officer Cassie Dewell, who left North Dakota and has since set up shop in Bozeman, Montana, as she attempts to help out an attorney friend named Rachel Mitchell—who asks Cassie to poke around and see if her client is actually guilty.
When it comes to character development, C.J. Box is second to none. Over the course of his career as a novelist, he’s brought his characters along unlike anyone else. Fans of the Pickett series know that well, but he’s used that same touch of brilliance to flesh out Cassie over the last few years as well, quickly turning her into one of the genre’s best female protagonists. While the overall tone of this is series is a shade darker than what fans of his other series may expect, Box has actually done some of his best writing (see his Edgar winning book Blue Heaven) outside of Joe Pickett franchise, and The Bitterroots is some of his finest work yet.
THE CHARACTER of Cassie Dewell, who is the protagonist of my newest novel The Bitterroots, first appeared in The Highway back in 2013. It was an inauspicious beginning:
When the headlights appeared she was eating from a small box of chocolate-covered cake donuts, playing that stupid game she played with herself. One every hour, just to “keep her energy up.” It had been three hours and the box of twelve was gone.
SINCE THAT time and that book, Cassie has gone on to take over the Chief Investigator position at the Bakkan County Sheriff’s Department in Badlands (2015), lost that job in horrendous circumstances in Paradise Valley (2017), and has now launched her own private investigation firm in Montana in The Bitterroots.
I never sat out to write an additional series to accompany the Joe Pickett novels, much less a series of books featuring an overweight widower and single mom at the center. How it happened is a mystery in itself. My original thought was to write a collection of novels that were loosely connected by one or two recurring characters. Not so much a series as a number of dark stand-alone novels that passed a baton from one book to the next via familiar characters and themes. As you probably know, Back of Beyond (2013) begat The Highway which begat Badlands which begat Paradise Valley.
It’s known as The Highway Quartet.
And now we have a new novel once again featuring Cassie.
So who is Cassie Dewell?
IN THE HIGHWAY, I thought of her character as a means to an end. She was there to investigate and observe the mercurial Cody Hoyt from the point-of-view of someone I hoped readers could empathize with. Cassie was a normal person who worked hard, struggled with her status within the all-male department, and tried to maintain a work/life balance while also rearing her son Ben. She was to be Cody Hoyt’s straight-arrow sidekick who both admired and loathed him at times. Readers would observe Cody’s world and outlook through Cassie’s eyes.
Then, in the writing of The Highway (my creepiest book), something happened that surprised me: I found myself really, really liking her. So much so that in my mind and affections she overtook Cody Hoyt as a personality and as a character.
Halfway through the novel she is forced to take over the investigation alone. I won’t discuss what happens to Cody other than to say it’s quite a shock to many readers.
Cassie Dewell, although unsure of her footing or instincts at first, steps up to the job. And more than that: she asserts herself in ways even she never thought possible. I found myself loving the character. And I was thrilled to find out from readers that they did, too.
I don’t think it’s out-of-bounds to say that male authors often find it a challenge to write credible female characters. (Perhaps I should say that women readers rightly scoff at how some male authors depict women). I was nervous about that as well.
When the draft manuscript for The Highway was complete I gave it to my wife Laurie, who is my first reader and my greatest editor-slash-critic. She was disturbed by the character of The Lizard King (a long-haul trucker who is a serial killer) but she loved Cassie. Then I sent it to my second-readers, who are my three adult daughters. Then to my agent Ann Rittenberg. Then to my editor at St. Martins Minotaur, Jennifer Enderlin.
Everyone had notes on the novel, and all of them were terrific. But the thing that didn’t happen was akin to the Sherlock Homes adage about the dog that didn’t bark. All of the females in my life liked Cassie Dewell as much as I did and no one said that they didn’t find her realistic and credible.
Which has turned out to be one of the things I’m most proud of.
IN THE BITTERROOTS, Cassie opens a new chapter to her life when she opens her own private investigations firm in Montana. The Lizard King is no more, but he haunts her in ways that make her doubt her own sanity at times. But she’s Cassie and she soldiers on. When she’s asked to investigate the brutal rape of an underage girl by her own uncle, Cassie is plunged into the world of Montana’s most dysfunctional ranch family.
In her career, she’s experienced the darkest forms of deceit and depravity. But she’s never faced anything quite like the Kleinsasser Family of Lochsa County, Montana.
Let’s say a little prayer for Cassie Dewell as she gets into her car to drive north to investigate the crime…
August 1, 2019