Tag Archives: John Sandford

‘Bloody Genius,’ by John Sandford

Virgil had never seen a purely ideological murder, Republicans being too cautious, Democrats generally being bad shots.

I don’t like John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers character as much as I like his more famous detective, Lucas Davenport. But I quite enjoyed Bloody Genius, the latest in the Flowers series. I notice that it’s gotten a lot of poor Amazon reviews, but I had a good time.

Virgil Flowers is a deceptively laid-back agent for Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He dresses like an aging rock musician, and goes fishing on company time, but he closes cases.

This time he’s called to Minneapolis (which he hates; rural Minnesota is his stomping grounds) to investigate the murder of a famous genetic researcher at the university, who was battered to death in his study carrell in the library. No motive is apparent, and the murder weapon is uncertain – though his heavy laptop computer is missing.

Virgil probes the murky waters of academic rivalries, and the victim’s sexual escapades, and his family relationships. But the real culprit and the real motive will be new ones in his experience.

As often happens with these books, they take me to places I’m familiar with, at least to some extent, and I enjoy that. And I like Sandford’s observations of the world, though Flowers’s eyes – quite often they’re politically incorrect.

I was surprised by the observation, at a couple points, that the University of Minnesota’s team colors are red and gold. Even I, the opposite of a sports fan, know they’re maroon and gold.

But I particularly liked Harry, an old guy Virgil meets in a bar. Harry informs Virgil that he can recite “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “Gunga Din.” As it happens, those were my performance pieces back in the day. Harry might almost be me, except that I don’t hang out in bars.

As always, cautions for lots of foul language and adult themes.

‘Masked Prey,’ by John Sandford

“Then I’m like that Mission: Impossible thing, where the secretary will disavow any knowledge of me?”

“So fast your head will spin off—although it’d probably be a deputy assistant undersecretary in charge of cover-ups,” Henderson said. “You’re not nearly important enough to be disavowed by an actual secretary.”

John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport “Prey” series rolls along, dispensing dependable entertainment for the thriller fan. I’m kind of sad Davenport has taken his show on the road, operating as a US Marshal now, rather than sticking to Minnesota, my stomping grounds. But the stories remain good.

In Masked Prey, the teenaged daughter of a female senator, who has made herself a minor celebrity through podcasting, discovers a site on the Dark Web. This site posts excerpts from extreme Alt-Right sites, along with candid photos of the children of a number of legislators. No explicit threat is made, but it seems to be an invitation to target the kids for political purposes. The girl – and her mother – both freak out. The FBI makes a political decision to turn it over to Marshal Lucas Davenport, who’s good with bizarre problems and lateral thinking. What’s implicit, but not stated, is that they want Davenport to hunt the (expletive deleted) down and kill him with minimum fuss.

As Davenport pokes into the world of the Alt-Right, a “lone psycho” begins his journey of what he considers self-actualization. It’s his destiny, he believes, to change history by killing a lawmaker’s kid. He has to learn how to kill – which he does, and it’s harder than he expected – but he’s determined, and intelligent enough to make it work.

This story moves further into politics than most of Sandford’s books, but I think he squares the circle pretty well, generally. He establishes early on that Davenport himself tends to the conservative side. And his right-wing activists are deeper and more faceted than you might expect.

I did find what I believe to be a factual error in this book. I have no personal experience here, but I’m given to understand that the way the villain acquires a couple firearms in this book is not correct. You can’t (or so I’m told) simply walk into a gun show and walk out with a couple of guns, without a background check. Maybe I missed a technical point.

I’ve seen John Sandford criticized for having only one character, and there’s some justice in that. At least in terms of the jokes they make, all his characters talk pretty much the same. But the jokes work, and they’re often politically incorrect, so I’m not complaining.

Recommended, with cautions for language, adult themes, and disturbing scenes.

‘Neon Prey, by John Sandford

Another year, another John Sandford Prey novel (this one’s number 29). In Neon Prey, hero Lucas Davenport, still living in St. Paul and now operating as a US Marshal, gets called to a bizarre crime scene in Louisiana. Cops raided a hit man’s house, and discovered a number of bodies buried in the adjacent swamp – and those bodies show signs of being butchered. This killer is a cannibal. Lucas and his two regular partners, marshals Bob Matees and Rae Givens (double gags there – “Bob and Rae” for old radio fans, plus a hat tip to Elmore Leonard) join the hunt for this guy. They trace him as he hooks up with his brother, a home invasion expert, and members of his gang in Las Vegas. The clues are few and far between, but the cannibal proves no asset to his brothers’ gang, and in the end it will be every person for themselves.

Author Sandford offers the usual pleasures of a Prey book here – the familiar, interesting hero, plus a lot of politically incorrect cop humor. But I have to say that if this had been the first book in the series I’d read, I probably wouldn’t read another. I found the ending highly unsatisfactory.

So, my verdict is this: If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll probably enjoy Neon Prey, at least up to a point. If you’re not, I really don’t recommend it.

Cautions for language, violence, and very disturbing scenes.

‘Holy Ghost,’ by John Sandford

Holy Ghost

John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers novels take a different approach from his more famous “Prey” novels starring Lucas Davenport. Virgil investigates in small town and rural Minnesota, and he generally handles less horrific crimes than Davenport. But that makes the stories no less interesting, and the puzzles in Holy Ghost are plenty challenging for any reader, I’d say.

Wheatfield, Minnesota was a moribund little town until the young mayor and a friend come up with a questionable scheme for reviving the economy. It involves a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the local Catholic church. They mean no harm, though they certainly profit from the situation. Pretty much everyone is happy with how things are going (including a skeptical visiting priest), until somebody starts shooting at visitors.

Virgil Flowers, former lady’s man (he’s now in an exclusive – though unmarried – relationship), and part-time outdoor writer, goes to Wheatfield in his capacity as an agent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He meets a series of colorful characters (described pretty much without condescension), and pokes into everybody’s business in his low-key style. These are simple people, but the mystery is not simple at all.

I liked Holy Ghost the best, perhaps, of any of the books in this series. And that’s in spite of the depiction of a religious hoax, which is handled more casually than I approve of. But I liked the treatment of small-town people, and the dialogue was often quite funny.

Cautions for language, dirty jokes, violence, sexual references, and lighthearted handling of religious matters.

‘Deep Freeze,’ by John Sandford

Deep Freeze

John Sandford’s novels are always entertaining. The latest Virgil Flowers novel, Deep Freeze, delivers pretty much what you paid for.

As you probably guessed from the title, this story takes place during the Minnesota winter. Virgil Flowers, laid-back agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is called back to place he has no desire to revisit – Trippton, in the southeastern part of the state. He recently closed down a murder ring there involving some of the town’s most prominent people. This time a woman has been found floating in the warm recycling runoff from the local water treatment plant. Evidence in her home indicates she was murdered there and dumped in the river. She was a local VIP, the town banker. She had had a meeting with her old high school classmates the night she died, planning a reunion. All the obvious suspects seem to have ironclad alibis.

At the same time, Virgil is asked to assist a female private detective who has the blessing of the governor. She has been hired by the Mattel Corporation to hunt down a ring of locals who are altering Barbie Dolls to make them into sex toys. Virgil is reluctant to get involved in this case, partly because the illegal business is helping out some people in tough economic circumstances. But he’ll do what he can, when he can. Especially after a bunch of them attack him and leave him badly injured.

If you read Sandford, you know what to expect here – a pretty good mystery with amusing, colorful characters and a lot of obscene dialogue and dirty jokes. One thing I’d advise author Sandford to do is to sprinkle a few more Scandinavian names among his characters, especially the poorer ones. I don’t say that for reasons of ethnic pride (or not entirely). When his rednecks get to talking, I have trouble not imagining them speaking with southern accents. It would help if a few of them were named Olson or Lindquist; it would be a reminder.

Recommended for Sandford fans. If you can’t handle a lot of f-bombs, you’d do best to stay away.

‘Golden Prey,’ by John Sandford

Golden Prey

If you like John Sandford’s Prey novels, you’ll probably like his latest, Golden Prey. I do, and I did.

Golden Prey is pretty much written to pattern, except that the locations and the cast of characters have been shaken up. Hero cop Lucas Davenport has left the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and joined the US Marshal’s Service. His unique status, as one who saved the life of the woman expected to be the next president (clearly modeled on Hillary Clinton), allows him, unlike other marshals, to be selective about his assignments. He holds out for “interesting” jobs, which means what he’s always done best – pursuing serial killers.

This time he goes to the American southwest to hunt a couple of stick-up men who ripped off a huge money delivery meant for a drug cartel, killing several people in the process. Meanwhile a pair of killers sent by the cartel are on the robbers’ trail as well. Their investigative methods are not subtle – they torture to death anyone they can find who knows their targets.

Lucas teams up with a female/male/black/white team of FBI agents to catch the robbers before the cartel killers can get to them, meanwhile trying to identify the cartel killers’ next targets so they can be protected. There are a lot of interesting opportunities for moral ambiguity, balancing off our sympathies as awful people are pursued by even more awful people.

Golden Prey breaks little new ground. It’s written pretty much to pattern, and if you like the pattern, you’ll probably enjoy the book. Cautions, as usual, for lots of black cop humor, foul language, and violence.

‘Escape Clause,’ by John Sandford

Escape Clause

Eleven years: Peck would give everything to have had those eleven years back. For one thing, he wouldn’t have messed around with those women in Indianapolis. If he’d gotten a regular doctor job, he’d be driving the big bucks now, fixing everything from Aarskog syndrome to Zika virus.

I’m fond of cop humor. Cop humor is black humor, often profane humor, the humor of people who’ve seen the worst things life can dish up, and have found ways of coping. John Sandford’s novels about Minnesota cops are full of cop humor, which is one of their charms. In comparison to his Prey novels, starring Lucas Davenport, his Virgil Flowers novels tend to lean more heavily toward slapstick. Escape Clause is perhaps the most comic of his novels to date, though there are several murders along the way.

In Escape Clause, we begin with the theft (kidnapping?) of two rare tigers from the Minnesota Zoo. There’s no mystery in this story – it’s a thriller. We know who the bad guys are (an eastern medicines doctor and a few thugs), and the suspense is in how fast the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, in the person of Virgil Flowers (the only guy they can spare because of security demands at the Minnesota State Fair during visits by presidential candidates) can figure out what’s going on and stop it.

Virgil is a good cop, though not a very good shot, and generally reluctant to even carry a gun. He also tends to take a lot of pratfalls in this outing. Simultaneous with this job, he gets involved with stopping some thugs, hired by a sweatshop owner to beat up his girlfriend’s sister, who’s doing sociology research on the illegal alien workers.

It’s all a lot of fun, and it’s mostly dirtbags who get killed. The climax is obvious a mile away, but no less enjoyable for that, on a visceral level.

An interesting new element in this story is the character of “Father Bill,” a Catholic priest who leads an odd life. He works as a supply pastor for the Minneapolis-St. Paul diocese nine months of the year, and is celibate then. During the summers he works at a resort and has a girlfriend. This is kind of jaw-dropping, but I suppose it’s not unthinkable in today’s church. Virgil, whose father is a Lutheran pastor, makes some small effort to talk him over to the Protestant side.

Anyway, I had a good time with Escape Clause. Cautions for lots of bad language and adult situations, also the death of an animal (almost always more traumatic than human death in a novel).

‘Extreme Prey,’ by John Sandford

He fit in the crowd like pea in a pod, he thought: the basic difference between Minnesotans and Iowans was a line on a map. Other than that, they were the same bunch, except, of course, for the physical and spiritual superiority of the Minnesota Gophers over the Iowa Hawkeyes, in all ways, and forever. Between the Hawks and the Badgers… they’d have to work that out themselves.

Another Prey book from John Sandford. Another good, entertaining story, and this time – I’m happy to report – a little lighter on the perversion and sadism.

As Extreme Prey begins, Lucas Davenport is working on remodeling his Wisconsin cabin, ogling his sexy carpenter. He’s unemployed for the moment (no great hardship for a multimillionaire), having quit his job with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Nevertheless, he still takes a call from the governor.

The governor is running for the presidential nomination (Democrat), and he’s worried about the safety of the front-runner in the race, Michaela Bowden, a former cabinet secretary. Messages he’s gotten from the lunatic fringe among his supporters have him suspicious that there’s an assassination plot aimed at Bowden. So he asks Lucas to liaise with her campaign and try to ferret out the plot, if one exists. Everybody’s in Iowa for the state fair this week, so that’s where Lucas heads in his big Mercedes SUV.

What follows is one of the more entertaining and thoughtful of the Prey stories. The plot centers around an eccentric band of rural activists, violent and crazy, but just like regular folks in alarming ways. I admired the way author Sandford defused the political implications of such a story by pretty much ignoring Republicans altogether, except for a few slighting asides. The very good and the very bad are all Democrats, and they too are not immune to criticism and satire.

As in all the Prey books, there’s plenty of low humor, and a lot of rough language. But the level of cruelty and gore is lower this time around. I enjoyed Extreme Prey a lot.

‘Gathering Prey,’ by John Sandford

They also had to deal with the question of whether Minnesotans were actually aliens. Terry brought it up: “You know what? Everybody I seen around here has big heads. You seen that?” They did, on their runs into town for food and beer. Minnesotans all had big heads. When they spotted a guy with a cowboy hat and a small head, they asked him if he was from Minnesota, and he told them no, he was from Montana.

Another John Sandford “Prey” book. Cause for rejoicing at my house. Sandford may not be the greatest creator of vivid characters in the world, or the greatest writer of dialogue, but when it comes to the art of ratcheting up the tension in a police thriller, while keeping the tone light with timely injections of cop humor, nobody comes close to him. He does what he does better than anybody.

Gathering Prey, the umpty-fifth Prey novel, starts in California, where hero Lucas Davenport’s adopted daughter, Letty, is attending Stanford University. She meets a couple of buskers, Skye and Henry, and befriends them. They mention to her a man they call “Pilot” who (Skye informs her) is “the devil.”

Some time later, back home in St. Paul, Letty gets a call from Skye. She’s on her way to Minnesota from the biker rally in Sturgis, SD. Henry has disappeared, and he had been talking to Pilot, who was also there. She’s convinced Pilot kidnapped Henry.

Letty tells Lucas, and Lucas looks into it, and one thing leads to another until he’s involved in a manhunt across South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan, pursuing a Manson-like killing cult that’s growing increasingly unstable.

I’m impressed with the way author Sandford manages to keep an old formula fresh. The book was as lively and engrossing as any he’s written. An incident at the end indicates he plans to change things up a little in the next entry, but that’s fine with me too.

The Prey books are fantasies to some extent, and not only in terms of the male wish-fulfillment embodied in the character of Lucas Davenport, millionaire cop. Davenport is clearly a Democrat, but he lives in a Minnesota where Democrats don’t consider every criminal a misunderstood child who just needs a hug, and where men can tell women dirty jokes without losing their jobs.

But I don’t object to a little fantasy either. Keep the books coming, John Sandford. Me and my big head are waiting for them.

Cautions for language, adult themes, and some pretty appalling (but not too graphic) cruelty.