Don’t start Badlands unless you can finish it. Set in the booming oil fields of North Dakota, the plot gathers momentum from the first page. Undergoing a boomtown phenomenon like the 1800 California Gold Rush, the town of Grimstad has seen its meager population explode with industry, profit, and the detritus of too many people hustling for survival in a stingy world. Workers flock to North Dakota in search of lucrative jobs from fracking oil shale from the land.
Food, lodging and entertainment grow around an invigorated industry, where men far outnumber women and criminal enterprise sniffs out opportunity.
Cassie Dewell, formerly of the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Department in Helena, Montana, is ready to begin a new job as Chief Investigator in Grimstad. Closing the door on a difficult history in Helena, Cassie plans to move her
six-year-old son, Ben, to Grimstad but has a detour to make before meeting her new boss. Dewell has been deeply involved in the pursuit of truck-driving serial killer Ronald Pelgram, nicknamed the Lizard King, a killer responsible for a swath of death and terror, preying on truck-stop hookers, perhaps hundreds of them. A recent arrest may be Pelgram under an assumed identity, albeit physically dissimilar. Dewell has been given an opportunity to interview the suspect before his release. While she manages to buy time for further investigation during the interview, she has to leave before his identity is established, hopeful the monster will finally be put away.
There is little time for adjustment but no shortage of crime as Cassie is given a perfunctory tour of Grimstad by Sheriff Kirkbride, who has specially chosen her as his new Chief Investigator, bypassing other candidates to bring in a fresh perspective from outside the department. Cassie confides only in Kirkbride but familiarizes herself with the other officers in the department. Her first assignment is investigating two recent murders, perhaps contract hits, that have been worrying Kirkbride. Grimstad is in a state of war, rival drug gangs fighting to dominate a growing business. They operate on the periphery of town, the burgeoning population of lonely men perfect targets for the vices that follow rapid economic growth.
Although neither is yet aware of it, Kyle Westergaard, a twelve-year-old boy with fetal alcohol syndrome, will become a critical element in Cassie’s case. Son of an addict trying to go straight, Kyle is riding his bike on an early morning newspaper route when he witnesses a spectacular car crash that ends in a gully. Watching from a distance, Kyle becomes an unwary catalyst in a dramatic cat-and-mouse game in the aftermath of the wreck. Weaving in and out of the story on his bike, Kyle’s activities not only define the direction of the story but contrast the real-time affects of drug abuse with the sophisticated networks that supply product to consumer, desperate addicts and their families versus the fine-tuned machine of supply and demand. Kyle not only brings heart to a troubling and inherently violent tale but gives a face to the disenfranchised, children living with addicts on the edges of society.
Kyle is caught up in a situation beyond his control, with no one to trust and nowhere to turn as chaos escalates around him. Unaware that Dewell will be instrumental in finding a solution to his harrowing misadventure, Kyle’s decision to confide in Cassie facilitates the end of the current reign of terror. Cassie
has barely gotten settled in these unfamiliar surroundings, but working with Kirkbride feels good, like a place where she can stay. The particularities of Grimstad are unique, but Box is predictably relentless in pitting his protagonist against the scorched-earth tactics of seasoned criminals. Given the environment, some characters are predictable, but others are more nuanced, her coworkers as yet unfamiliar, integrity sometimes compromised for opportunity, violence as extreme as the elements. Box
is conversant with the ragged landscape of the human psyche, good and bad. Cassie Dewell suspects unfinished business is heading her way. She’s ready.