Wicked Prey, the nineteenth entry in John Sandford’s broad-shouldered series of thrillers starring Minnesota detective Lucas Davenport, is set in and around the 2008 Republican National Convention. Ingeniously designed and characterized villains are a hallmark of the series, and here Sandford strikes gold by making the villains a murderous gang who arrive in the Twin Cities to rob the various party bagmen attending the convention with payoff money in hand. And while it has no bearing on the plot or the pace of the action, which remain accessible and captivating to all points on the political spectrum, I am relieved to report that at one point we learn that Davenport is sorely put off by John McCain’s choice of a running mate and expects to vote Democratic in the upcoming election.
I say “relieved” because the early titles in the Davenport series played off the sense that the hero was only slightly less crazy than the serial killers he was chasing, but Sandford gradually calmed him down enough to make him plausible as a sane husband and family man. Had Davenport considered Sarah Palin a plausible vice president, we would have had to worry that his hard-won equilibrium might once again be slipping.
Since John Sandford is in real life John Camp, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, I snatched up Wicked Prey hoping for some juicy inside stuff, maybe even some thinly veiled political satire. But that’s not what the Prey books are all about. Sandford isn’t going to turn into Tom Wolfe this late in the game, and Wicked Prey stays true to the series template: fast-moving police procedurals with dialogue as hard-edged as the frequent bursts of violence. Even so, I appreciated the details about the disbursement of street money by political operatives, and the bit of color that has developers allowing GOP aparatchiks to occupy their unsold condos in hopes of winning future business.
The book’s Achilles heel is the subplot involving Letty West, the young girl Davenport brought into his life in Naked Prey. Now a preternaturally brave and resourceful 14-year-old, Letty learns she is being stalked by a pimp with a vendetta against Davenport, and spends the novel turning the tables on him. The trouble is that the pimp never seems remotely credible as a threat, and the girl is more than a match not only for him but his woozy associates as well. It’s not a crippling weakness, but for me it does set Wicked Prey firmly in the second tier novels of the series. It’s a step up from the previous few entries, but it won’t join Secret Prey and Shadow Prey as the books I recomend to people looking to pick up on the Davenport novels.
As it turns out, you can get more color on the GOP convention from Sandford’s Web site, which showcases some articles Camp wrote for the local print. The heading Gray-Haired Protesters had me fearing the worst, but Camp did the protestors the courtesy of actually speaking with them, and the piece is mercifully free of the usual nostalgic-hippie stereotypes. There is also a handy primer on how to cover a riot and keep from getting trashed by either the police or the rioters, and a just-the-facts chronicle of how a protest march was deliberately led on an exhausting snipe-hunt by the police. Because Camp is still a pro, he leaves the reader to contemplate the balancing act between maintaining order and allowing democracy to function.