Detective and Crime fiction 4: John Sandford

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ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author: Tony,23 May 2015

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John Sandford is also an internationally successful author whose novels invariably appear on the bestseller lists in one format or another. He is the author of thirty-five published novels.

John Sandford is the pseudonym of John Roswell Camp who was a journalist before he began writing novels full-time. He won the Pulitzer prize in journalism in 1986.

John Camp was born on 23 February 1943, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His maternal grandparents were immigrants from Lithuania. He says: ‘He spent many of his early years living on, or visiting, their rural acreage…’

He received a bachelor’s degree in American studies in 1966 and a master’s degree in journalism from the university of Iowa in 1971. Between these stints he spent two years in the US Army in Korea. He was a reporter and editor at the Miami Herald from 1971-1978 and a reporter and columnist for the St Paul Pioneer Press 1978-1990. He occasionally still does journalism and was embedded with the 2-147 Air Assault Battalion during the Iraq War. His jounalism during this period and his Pulitzer Prize journalism is included on his website.

The John Sandford Site is less well-designed than the Connelly one but contains good information.

The early Sandford books only predate Michael Connelly’s first book by three years. Hence they should be treated as contemporaries though Connelly is Camp’s junior by twelve years. As policemen, however, Harry Bosch and Lucas Davenport are chalk and cheese. Sandford is unusual in that his books are about a senior police mover and shaker, who is not dependent on his salary for keeping his job. This is a neat or clever way around the perennial ‘maverick’ problem. Virgil Flower’s maverick nature is protected by Davenport, while Kidd is outside the law.

Kidd Series

FoolsRun

I began with reading the Kidd series well after they were first published, buying them second hand from Canty’s bookstore in Canberra. The series comprises four books published in 1989, 1991, 2000, 2003 (see bibliography below). Kidd is an artist, computer whiz and professional criminal who lives in a pleasant apartment overlooking the Mississippi River in the twin cities of Minneapolis, St Paul. He has a sometime partner, sometime lover LuEllen who is a cat burgler. Although these books are a bit dated, by the computer elements; they are still a good read. Kidd is an excellent and intelligent character, one is frustrated that there are so few books.

The Prey Series

rulesprey

I was initially put off by the titles with prey in them. It was probably at the time I was sick to death of serial killer books and I mistakenly thought that these were such books (see bibliography below). I think I began reading them during an extended stay in Thailand around 2010 buying them from Backstreet Books, a second hand bookstore near Tha Phai Gate in Chiang Mai.

Lucas Davenport is the central character in all these books. He is a Lieutenant of police in the Minneapolis police but is a loner and maverick, independently rich because he developed some successful gaming software. He drives a Porsche and runs and is the only member of the Department’s Office of Special Intelligence and runs a network of street contacts. Davenport prefers to work alone in parallel with homicide. He is a hard man and bends the rules, at the end of the third novel he is forced to resign to avoid excessive force charges.

In the next two novels he is outside the force but called in to help in exceptional circumstances. In Night Prey he returns as a Deputy Chief (a political appointment) running his own intelligence unit.

Beginnning with Naked Prey the fourteenth novel his ex-boss Rose Marie Roux has moved up to state level and takes Lucas with her creating a special troubleshooter role for him in cases that are too complicated or politically sensitive for others to handle. He occasionally works directly for the Governor.

Davenport is known for his unorthodox manipulative behaviour. He’s charismatic and tough-minded but still basically a loner who works with a circle of capable but mainstream police friends. He is part of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which he eventually heads. He’s not described as a leader but in the later novels is more and more thrust into a leadership role. He still casually disregards the rules. In Stolen Prey one character describes his actions as ‘legally questionable’ and Lucas adds ‘But morally correct’. Legally questionable is an understatement, he will occasionally bend and break the law to further a case.

‘Davenport is described as a tall, slender, wide-shouldered man with a “permanent tan” that gives his very blue eyes a kind expression, contradicted by the “chilly” smile of a predator.’ He has dark hair, greying at the temples and during the series gathers an impressive array of knife and and gunshot wound scars. He is also a bit of a gun nut. Some of the material above is gathered from the Wikipedia website.

Lucas Davenport is a great creation and one learns much about him as his character develops during the series and over the years. The books are basically police procedural but with the great latitude necessary for creative fiction. Lucas’s character and increasing power and position as a maverick investigator provide that latitude within what appears to be a useful and progressive career in law enforcement. Unlike most police procedural novels, though he is an outsider, he is one of the bosses rather than an underling.

Personally, I prefer Michael Connelly, slightly. But John Sandford is equally professional and tells a great story. These are well-written readable and engrossing novels.

The Virgil Flowers Series

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Virgil Flowers is a much more charming character than Lucas Davenport. He is a very engaging character and has notable behavioural quirks.

The Sandford site says of him: Virgil Flowers is tall, lean, late thirties, three times divorced with blond hair way too long for a cop’s. He looks more like a surfer hippy and is also much too handsome. He’d kicked around for a while before joining the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. First it was the army and the military police, then the police in St Paul, and finally Lucas Davenport has brought him into the BCA, promising him, ‘We’ll only give you the hard stuff.’

When the first novel begins he’d been doing the hard stuff for three years. At the start of each novel Flowers is usually doing something else like fishing or in bed with someone and is reluctant to begin. But once started he takes his job as seriously as you will ever see and is very good at unraveling complex situations. He is also disarming and talkative. Unlike other policemen he will talk about the case to all and sundry and this is a technique he uses to elicit information. He lives and also invariably works in the countryside of Minnesota, only going to the twin cities when he has to.

The books have a tendency towards formula as does the character, but this is not a problem. Virgil is known as that ‘fucking Flowers’ by his colleagues, but nobody including Vergil can remember how he got the name. Although some think it reflects his regular sexual exploits. He certainly sleeps around in the novels with various characters, including suspects, but is always innocently surprised about it. He wears cowboy boots and always vintage band T-shirts. He drives a utility truck and is frequently towing a boat. Davenport frequently asks him suspiciously whether he is towing the boat or tells him to get rid of it. Flowers is passionate about fishing. He also likes women and talks to God before going to sleep. Virgil also tends to forget his gun, leaves it in his vehicle and sometimes loses it.

The second novel harks back to the Vietnam war and ends with a violent gunfight. Forever after in each succeeding novel, Flowers is always remembered for killing those people up north.

Virgil is such an endearing character that eight books is not enough. The plots and the crimes are always good and the denouements excellent.

John Sandford novels are always a good read. They are intelligent and engrossing. He has published another Davenport prey book Gathering Prey in April 2015.

The movies

There are two TV Movies Mind Prey (1999) and Certain Prey (2011). Reading (his son) Roswell Sandford’s comments on the Sandford website (above) about Mind Prey and reviews on IMDB (5.1 out of 10), though the TV movie was perhaps good entertainment, the casting was dreadful. As one review says it was ‘artistic butchery’. I take this to mean that the key players Davenport and his wife Weather were cast as black and played by black actors. Even I could not come at this, because Lucas Davenport is clearly a WASP in the books in both the colour of skin and in particular his attitudes. (I was wrong he’s a lapsed Catholic, as was revealed recently when I read Winter Prey.) Certain Prey at least casts a Davenport look-alike in Mark Harmon, but the New York Times gives it only 2.5 out of 5 and the review damns it with faint praise. I haven’t seen either so I have no basis for comment. However, I probably won’t be in a great hurry to remedy the sitiuation.

A bibliography of Sandford Novels

The Prey series:

  1. Rules of Prey(1989)
  2. Shadow Prey(1990)
  3. Eyes of Prey(1991)
  4. Silent Prey(1992)
  5. Winter Prey(1993)
  6. Night Prey(1994)
  7. Mind Prey(1995)
  8. Sudden Prey(1996)
  9. Secret Prey(1998)
  10. Certain Prey(1999)
  11. Easy Prey(2000)
  12. Chosen Prey(2001)
  13. Mortal Prey(2002)
  14. Naked Prey(2003)
  15. Hidden Prey(2004)
  16. Broken Prey(2005)
  17. Invisible Prey(2007)
  18. Phantom Prey(2008)
  19. Wicked Prey(2009)
  20. Storm Prey(2010)
  21. Buried Prey(2011)
  22. Stolen Prey(2012)
  23. Silken Prey(2013)
  24. Field of Prey(2014)
  25. Gathering Prey(2015)

The Virgil Flower series:

  1. Dark of the Moon(2007)
  2. Heat Lightning(2008)
  3. Rough Country(2009)
  4. Bad Blood(2010)
  5. Shock Wave(2011)
  6. Mad River(2012)
  7. Storm Front(2013)
  8. Deadline(2014)

The Kidd series:

  1. The Fool’s Run(1989)
  2. The Empress File(1991)
  3. The Devil’s Code(2000)
  4. The Hanged Man’s Song(2003)

Key Words: John Sandford, John Roswell Camp, Lucas Davenport, Virgil Flowers, Kidd, Michael Connelly, Harry Bosch

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