Normally I put down what I’m doing whenever a new John Sandford crime novel comes out, but last year was anything but normal and somehow I missed Storm Prey, the 2010 entry in Sandford’s long-running Lucas Davenport series. Having just knocked off the latest title, Buried Prey, and found it good and flavorful, I jumped back to Storm Prey and found it . . . well, pretty great. In fact, it’s the best one for my money since Secret Prey back in 1998.
Last month I talked about Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series and how the formula lost its fizz after the tenth entry. Meanwhile, Sandford has 21 Lucas Davenport titles under his belt (as well as two other less extensive series and a couple of stand-alone novels) and not only has he yet to repeat himself, he’s still getting better just about every time out.
A big part of the reason, I think, is that in his previous life, Sandford was John Camp, a journalist serious enough to bag a Pulitzer for a series on the decline of family farms in the high plains, and he’s kept the best habits of the trade. He stays fresh and keeps new information coming in: the Minneapolis-St. Paul setting has changed since the series launched in the Eighties, and the novels have subtly kept track of those changes. He’s as comfortable depicting corporate skullduggery as he is surveying hairbag bikers in shithole roadhouses, and this gives the series admirable range and depth. The guy knows stuff, and he keeps up with what’s happening out there.
Part of what made Secret Prey such a dazzling performance was the way Sandford played a baffling murder investigation against an equally intricate round of maneuvering to line up the next CEO of a major regional bank, with both strands unexpectedly tying into the identity of one of the more original serial killers put to paper. Storm Prey goes Secret Prey one better by giving the multiple plotlines additional thematic roles. The story begins with the robbery of a hospital pharmacy, one that goes bad when a staffer gets killed. There is a witness who is also a member of the surgical team about to separate Siamese twins in an exceedingly delicate and risky operation. The robbers are an unlikely alliance of dumbass bikers and a cokehead inside man: the dumbasses try to cover their tracks with a series of inept murders, and the lethal comedy of the subplot (which at times brings to mind the Coen Brothers in their pitch-black Fargo mode) plays off the spectacle of surgeons bringing their formidable intelligence and training to a lifesaving mission.
Along with details on the finer points of drug trafficking and fencing stolen goods in the rustic hills of Minnesota, Sandford gives us a knowing look at the social caste system within a hospital (a surgeon would never be caught dead wearing crepe-soled shoes, and Sandford tells us why) and makes the surgical team a mirror image of the robbery team. There’s also a quietly heartbreaking moment in which the infants, spotting the surgeons who are there to help them, start wailing, because all they understand is that more pain is on the way.
Another hallmark of the Davenport series is the villains: Sandford differentiates between those who are dangerous because they’re stupid, those who are dangerous because they’re stuck in a corner, and those who are dangerous because they are missing the crucial elements that separate full-fledged humans from two-legged monsters. The bad guys in Storm Prey are mostly a rum lot, but black-comedy aspect comes into focus with the arrival of Cap, a youthful psychopath whose mere existence is a mortal threat to everyone in the Twin Cities region.
Sandford always goes the extra mile with his bad guys, a trait which helped elevate the series from its early status as a Thomas Harris knockoff, complete with tough-cop hero whose mental state was only slightly less scary than that of his quarry. While this gave the first five or so “Prey” titles an appealingly nasty edge — particularly Winter Prey, the first perfectly realized Davenport novel — Sandford was savvy enough to recognize that no protagonist could exist for long at such a full boil intensity. So he lined Davenport up with a soul mate — you knew they were perfect for each other when she performed a tracheotomy on him in the middle of a blizzard — and gave the supporting cast a good share of the spotlight. The result is that the series has become more of a harder-edged police procedural while keeping the focus on Davenport. If you’re looking for comparisons, triangulate between the Helen Mirren Prime Suspect series and Ed McBain. If you agree with me that that’s a pretty high standard, then it’s time to start reading.