Tag Archives: Lucas Davenport

The Humpday Times Book Review

One of the benefits of being a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is that when you turn your hand to writing thrillers, as John Sandford (aka John Camp) did in the 1980s with Rules of Prey and its numerous sequels, you have enough background knowledge and information-gathering skills to portray high-fliers and low lifes with ease and authority. Having trolled the gutters in his last three “Prey” novels, Sandford heads upmarket with Silken Prey, which tosses his detective hero SILKENPREYLucas Davenport into the middle of a scandal involving kiddie porn, kidnapping, and possibly murder, all with a high-pressure Senate race rumbling overhead. This is the most political novel in the series since Wicked Prey, which was set during the GOP national convention in Minnesota, but don’t let that scare you off. There are no polemics here, just a sharp awareness of how money and power skew everything, even a hunt for justice. Especially a hunt for justice. And Sandford is too much of a pro to let his political inclinations turn his characters into ideological puppets. Silken Prey is first and foremost a police procedural involving targets with enough money to buy off trouble, or pay to have it inflicted in spades on their enemies. Sandford himself sums it up early on: “Shootout at the one percent corral.”

A better comparison for this novel might be Secret Prey, which played its murder investigation against intricate corporate maneuvering during a bank merger — think The Bonfire of the Vanities crossed with Thomas Harris and you’ll get an idea of the novel’s unique flavor. Silken Prey doesn’t quite match that book’s dazzling high-wire act. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say there’s a promised confrontation that doesn’t arrive, which undercuts the finale just a smidge.There’s also a bit too much cross-pollination with Sandford’s other two series characters, Kidd and Virgil Flowers, which seems a little too gimmicky for this otherwise exemplary author.

Which is not to say Silken Prey isn’t as engrossing as its predecessors, just that it doesn’t hit the peaks of Secret Prey, Storm Prey, or the black sheep of the series, Shadow Prey. There’s a great deal of gallows humor on display, as when a character who’s a poster child for narcissistic personality disorder reads a description of the condition and angrily dismisses it point by revealing point.

There are also hints that Sandford may be preparing a graceful exit for Lucas. The series began in 1989 as a top-grade Thomas Harris knockoff in which the hero often proved as scary dangerous as the psychos he was hunting. By about the eighth novel it ripened into top-grade police procedurals, and now Sandford has been adding intimations of mortality to the mix. I don’t think Sandford will kill Lucas off — for one thing, his publishers know that too final a terminus will dampen sales of the backlist — but Silken Prey ends with an antagonist well positioned to put him out of the way, career-wise or in any other sense of the word. I think we’re going to see some interesting changes in the next couple of novels.            

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Minnesota down and dirty

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.

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Friday finds

How about this one-woman band?

Cloud formations over the Canary Islands. Hypnotically beautiful.

The Battle of Point Judith, a U-boat engagement that happened after Germany surrendered. Makes me want to re-read Shadow Divers.

Has the incidence of swearing in John Sandford’s hard-boiled Prey series gone up or down? The numbers don’t lie.

How much would you bid for H.L. Mencken’s beer stein collection?

“Imagine a man who buys a chicken from the grocery store, manages to bring himself to orgasm by penetrating it, then cooks and eats the chicken.” No, dude, how about you imagine it and leave the rest of us out of your sexual fantasies. That sentence, penned by NYT winger columnist David “Babbling” Brooks, is only one of a selection of genuinely weird observations taken from Brooks’ new book, The Social Animal.

Westies playing tag, singing along with Maria Callas, discovering snow, and taking a lap nap.

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Lucas Davenport for Obama!

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.

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