Title: The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson
Genre: Contemporary, Mystery
Length: 304 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through Blogging for Books
A singularly compelling debut novel, about a desert where people go to escape their past, and a truck driver who finds himself at risk when he falls in love with a mysterious woman.
Ben Jones lives a quiet, hardscrabble life, working as a trucker on Route 117, a little-travelled road in a remote region of the Utah desert which serves as a haven for fugitives and others looking to hide from the world. For many of the desert’s inhabitants, Ben’s visits are their only contact with the outside world, and the only landmark worth noting is a once-famous roadside diner that hasn’t opened in years.
Ben’s routine is turned upside down when he stumbles across a beautiful woman named Claire playing a cello in an abandoned housing development. He can tell that she’s fleeing something in her past—a dark secret that pushed her to the end of the earth—but despite his better judgment he is inexorably drawn to her.
As Ben and Claire fall in love, specters from her past begin to resurface, with serious and life-threatening consequences not only for them both, but for others who have made this desert their sanctuary. Dangerous men come looking for her, and as they turn Route 117 upside down in their search, the long-buried secrets of those who’ve laid claim to this desert come to light, bringing Ben and the other locals into deadly conflict with Claire’s pursuers. Ultimately, the answers they all seek are connected to the desert’s greatest mystery—what really happened all those years ago at the never-open desert diner?
In this unforgettable story of love and loss, Ben learns the enduring truth that some violent crimes renew themselves across generations. At turns funny, heartbreaking and thrilling, The Never-Open Desert Diner powerfully evokes an unforgettable setting and introduces readers to a cast of characters who will linger long after the last page.
Set against the backdrop of the Utah desert, The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson is an atmospheric novel that is part mystery and part character study. With its incredible setting and cast of eclectic but vastly appealing characters, this captivating debut will leave readers hopeful it is just the first of many installments starring truck driver Ben Jones.
Ben is an independent trucker whose route along the desolate 117 is much more than a job. Caring deeply for the diverse customers he delivers packages to, his compassion for the residents leaves him on the verge of losing his business. Fiercely protective of their desire for privacy, Ben shields them from the sudden scrutiny of strangers even when offered an opportunity that could potentially pull him from the brink of financial ruin. Bewitched by the mysterious, ephemeral beauty whom he meets in a rather unorthodox (yet humorous) encounter, Ben is unwittingly drawn into a puzzling mystery that puts him and those he cares for in danger.
An orphan who was abandoned by his mother when he was a baby, Ben is one of those characters that is impossible not to like. He is a bit of loner yet he cares deeply for the customers on his route. He respects their vehement need for privacy and he never pushes for more contact than they are willing to give him. He is pragmatic and accepting of his fate even in the face of losing the truck route that is more calling than job. Down to earth with a surprising amount of depth under his somewhat taciturn exterior, Ben is a champion of those he cares for and he will do just about anything to protect them from outsiders.
One of the many notable characters on his route, Walt Butterfield is the cranky and enigmatic owner of The Well-Known Desert Diner. While many people know of the events of his tragic past, few know the actual details of the tragedy that continues to haunt him decades after it occurred. Walt’s diner is now closed for business yet he meticulously keeps the interior exactly as it was the day he shut the doors to the public. Hardened and irrefutably shaped by his misfortune, Walt has a surprising capacity for love when the prospect to right a wrong presents itself.
The unexpected appearance of Claire, a mysterious woman on the run from her past, provides Ben an unanticipated chance at love. Immediately smitten, he returns as often as possible with hopes of catching a glimpse of the beautiful stranger. Their encounters slowly evolve from slightly antagonistic to friendship then surprisingly, to romance. However, Claire’s unresolved past soon collides with her present which leaves Ben uncertain about their future together.
The harsh Utah desert is as much a character in the story as it is the setting. The descriptions of the bleak landscape are tempered by Mr. Anderson’s uncanny ability to find beauty in an arid region that is truly breathtaking. This wild and untamed location springs vibrantly to life and the reader experiences the vagaries of weather and the bleak isolation alongside Ben and the assorted cast of characters.
The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson is a fascinating peek into the lives of people who manage to thrive despite the hardship and heartbreak they experience while eking out a hard fought existence in an unforgiving stretch of isolated desert. Beautifully rendered with an ensemble of quirky but likable characters, this debut is an entertaining and thought-provoking story that I absolutely loved and highly recommend to anyone who enjoys character driven novels with a hint of mystery.