January 2, 2010


by John Sandford
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2009

Review by Anthony Barker

Minnesota is far from the known world. It is thought to be somewhere below the flight plan from New York to Seattle, but there is doubt whether it actually exists. Never-mind. Crime readers cherish Minnesota (even more than New Jersey) as the place where the really rude criminals hang out—the blessedly scary jurisdiction of Lucas Davenport, Chief of the ‘Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’.

Sandford has written 21 novels featuring his hero, Lucas Davenport—two novels about one of his investigators, Virgil Flowers, and for variety, four others in which the main character (‘Kidd’) is a cyber-criminal. I haven’t read them all, but I have tracked Davenport’s career intermittently as he rose from city detective to his present glory as head of the state’s law enforcement system, a job that involves not only the detection and suppression of crime, but the damping of ‘situations’ likely to embarrass the Governor.

In ‘Wicked Prey’ Davenport confronts the Republican National Convention. Thousands of delegates are in town, with fat wallets and trophy wives—the women festooned with diamonds, a pickpocket and mugger heaven.

Davenport has anticipated some of the ensuing trouble. He has recruited extra police from other jurisdictions to patrol the convention center and its environs. The FBI is there (interfering with local law enforcement as usual) and the Secret Service is in town to protect the candidates. The problem is not the lack of security, but the cleverness of the murder gang that has found its way past all the security to get to the corporate lobbyists and their suitcases full of money—millions of dollars in small, untraceable, bills, the green lubricant of the American political system. It really would be embarrassing to the Governor if anything bad happened. Bad things will happen.

To complicate matters, there have been reports of a former sniper with a specially made fifty-caliber rifle—last seen leaving Oklahoma in the general direction of the Twin Cities. The Secret Service is distressed.

Sandford always gives us our money’s worth in suspense and confusion. Aside from the main plot and the sub-plot, a meth-crazed, paraplegic pimp, whom Davenport busted in a previous novel, is hoping to get even by snaring Davenport’s ward, Letty West. Davenport rescued Letty in yet another earlier novel when she was a precocious 11 year old. She’s 14 now, and about to be adopted by Davenport and his wife. She imagines herself entirely self-sufficient. Since dad is busy, she decides to handle the matter herself, operating under the general teen-aged assumption that what dad doesn’t know won’t hurt him. When a friend reminds her she is only 14, she replies, “When it comes to trouble I’m 28.” (...out of the mouths of babes...)

To grossly over-generalize, American crime novels typically don’t involve much mystery. An American crime that depended on a train schedule would be ludicrous, and we seldom concern ourselves with non-barking dogs. The question for us, often, is not WHO done it, or HOW, but whether or not the hero will figure it out before something worse happens—not mysteries so much as thrillers.

In the real world crime is not thrilling. The motives are trite, the execution is pedestrian. No reconnaissance, intelligence or planning is required to shoot a convenience store clerk. An occasional bank job is clever enough to make the evening news, but for the most part, we see little in the way of forethought and planning. Things are different in Minnesota.

Sandford’s crimes are thrilling. In this case, the robberies and systematic murders involve a complex plan, scoped out months in advance, played for enormous stakes, by ruthless criminals, facing determined and intelligent opposition from law enforcement. The forces of good and evil are approximately balanced, with the element of surprise on the side of the criminals, while the edge in logic and methodology goes to the cops.

Sandford’s criminals are not merely evil—they have interesting personalities and back-stories. In Minnesota, you can not only ‘smile and be a villain’—you can be a genius sociopath with the skills and experience necessary to work intricate plans and to modify them on the fly. And lacking a conscience is a positive benefit when it comes to inconvenient witnesses.

We need not concern ourselves unduly about the lobbyists. Whatever they get will be richly deserved, and whatever they lose never really belonged to them. But what about that sniper—is he there to take out McCain?

And if you’re a parent, imagine your insouciant teen-aged daughter riding her bike down the back streets of Minneapolis—messing with weirdos.

I won’t spoil the plot by describing how the gang separates the lobbyists from their suitcases, or how Davenport and his team gradually box them in and eventually bring (most of them) to justice (a very rough sort of justice) while sparing the Governor any serious embarrassment. Let’s just be grateful that the author is (as far as we know) committed to law and order, for he is a regular Moriarity when it comes to imagining crimes.

What a crime writer John Sandford is. He deserves to have a whole state to himself—he’s earned it.

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