Friday, June 23, 2017

Broken Prey

Broken Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this 16th of (so far) 27 "Lucas Davenport" thrillers, award-winning journalist John Camp (who writes novels under the Sandford pseudonym) introduces the recurring character of Star Tribune writer Ruffe Ignace - about whom I have read many times, but only now learned how to pronounce his name correctly, as a consequence of starting near the end of the series, then skipping back to about the midpoint and moving forward again. (Sorry, I've already explained this off-color procedure for reading a book series in several reviews, but for the sake of future readers who will probably read my reviews in the order the books were published, I feel I must mention it again, to be clear. These explanations will get really tedious around the time I catch up to where I first joined the series, then skip back all the way to the beginning and go forward from there. Maybe I'll just bookmark this parenthetical blurb and drop links to it into future reviews, to save time. Whew!) Even more confusingly, I skipped from Book 15 to Book 17 of this series, then had to go back to catch this one. So it's been hard (or is going to be hard, depending on your point of view) to keep my reviews from spoiling books not yet read. Sorry in advance!

So, anyway, as I meant to say before I so rudely interrupted myself, Ruffe Ignace (Roo-fay Ig-nas; now you know) is this weaselly, ambitious reporter who wants like nobody's business to work for The New York Times. In spite of his shortcomings, he begins to develop into an ally of Davenport and soon-to-spin-off Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers; they amiably use each other to further their own agendas, and in the main, those agendas eventually prove to coincide with the public good. Ignace isn't a complete reptile; I know, I know, but that just goes to show the subtlety and depth of Sandford's characterization - not to mention the fact he was a newspaper writer himself, when he was still John Camp; so his portrait of Ignace probably has some affectionately satirical resemblance to a type of character he might have drawn from life. Ignace is perhaps more important in this book than any of his subsequent appearances, because this is the one in which the serial killer calls him up to tell his story to the press - information Ignace dutifully passes on to Davenport, who eventually discovers most of it is designed to mislead the cops.

Whoever the real killer is, he doesn't seem to care whether the people he tortures, rapes, and murders are male or female. He (or she, or even possibly they) also proves terrifyingly adept at dragging red herrings across the trail the BCA and local law enforcement are following. Slowed down by deceptions, including steering the investigation after the wrong suspect, the cops realize they are two steps behind the killer and falling farther behind, even while the race to save the life of the next victim is roaring down the roads of rural southern Minnesota at breakneck speed. Somehow, the killer is tied to the "big three" inmates at a secure mental hospital near Mankato - yet even with the suspects narrowed down that much, the killer remains elusive. Somehow, again, the killer is connected to - Sandford uses the phrase "hovering near" - an orgasmic college girl and her randy, Serbian-American surgeon lover; but in what way, I didn't guess until the explosive revelation. As Lucas & Co. get closer to identifying the real bad guy, as the killer gets closer to what he and his "Gods Down the Hall" speak of as Armageddon, the number of lives and limbs at stake, including (of course) Lucas' own, increases on a steep curve - a graph drawn in blood. Ick.

I gather this is also the last book to feature Davenport's recurring crime-solving partner Sloan as a Minneapolis police detective. Sloan reaches the burnout point while investigating the case in this book; I happen to know, again due to my non-linear reading of the series, he is featured in Book 17 as a former cop who runs a bar. I don't remember him figuring in any subsequent books in the series. So, again, I have the awkward sense that I'm going to see more of Sloan in the part of this series I should have read before this, but that is too old to be held by my local public library; awkward, because I won't see most of his character arc until long after I have seen where it ends.

Other than little continuity snarls like this, however, I find this to be a series that can be read in any order, or simply enjoyed as freestanding novels. Each one presents its own world of literary and criminal problems and solutions, and a convincingly unique twist on the crime-thriller cliche, "It started like any other homicide case, but by the time Lucas Davenport (or whoever) realizes something really sick is going on, it may already be too late to stop a disaster in which many lives, including our hero's, will be at stake." Okay, if not unique, at least distinctive enough to remember amid all the other variations on it played by this and similar authors. And part of what sells this particular variation of it, is the believable humanity of Lucas Davenport and the characters around him, taking his toughness and frailty together, his crime-detecting brilliance that makes him so dangerous to bad guy after bad guy, along with his human limitations and even moral failings that make this duel of wits a frighteningly even match.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Invisible Prey

Invisible Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

It is this 17th novel in the currently 27-book "Lucas Davenport" mystery-thriller series in which Virgil Flowers, a Davenport protégé whose going-on-10-book spinoff series hadn't yet spun off at the time, shoots a woman in the foot while aiming for center mass, only to see her finished off by another woman more inclined to shoot to kill. It's an incident I've already seen mentioned, in spare outline, in many other Davenport/Flowers books written after this, due to the order in which I have been reading the books being stupendously at odds with their publication order; but let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.

The case that brings together the pistol-marksmanship-challenged Flowers and the victim of his first shooting-related fatality is, after all, a Lucas Davenport mystery. It starts with a rich, politically connected old lady and her maid being beaten to death with a pipe. At first, to Davenport and the St. Paul homicide detective working the case with him, it seems like a robbery gone wrong. But there are pieces missing - pieces from the old lady's collection of antiques and paintings, that is - suggesting that the robbers/killers weren't just junkies trying to raise drug money by selling stolen stuff. The perpetrators could apparently tell the difference between really valuable stuff, items of middling value, and worthless junk - choosing what to steal, what to leave intact, and what to smash to cover their tracks, accordingly. Then the sleuths spot connections between the murders at the Bucher mansion and the unsolved killing of another rich, antique-collecting old lady in Wisconsin; and then a connection to a supposedly solved murder in Iowa, for which a suspect has already been tried and convicted. Then a young woman comes forward and claims her grandmother's seemingly accidental death must also be connected; though Davenport isn't sure, until the young woman herself disappears in ominous circumstances.

The case really gets interesting when a witness in the prosecution of a state senator who had sex with a teenage girl is targeted for kidnapping in a way that bizarrely connects the two seemingly unrelated cases. Unlike that granddaughter of one of the murder victims, the girl in question gets away from the kidnappers, thanks to the doggy heroism of a pit bull/rat terrier mix named Screw. Once bitten, the killer - who turns out to be frighteningly close to the murder investigation - goes increasingly out of control. Even stealing the really valuable objets d'art isn't his whole motive; nor is he only trying to cover up a colossal fraud. In fact, the dude is a flat-out psychopath, and he isn't acting alone. And so, as Davenport's cases so often do, what begins as a straightforward whodunit turns into a bedlam of betrayal, blackmail, frame-ups, fire-bombs, grisly (and never entirely explained) discoveries in a southern Minnesota farmyard, and a downtown St. Paul sting operation that goes completely sideways and ends with shots fired. And at the turning point of it all, a sniper has Davenport himself in his crosshairs.

I promise you, there are good reasons why I'm reading this series so ridiculously out of order - starting toward the end, jumping back to about the halfway point, and working forward from there with the occasional hop, skip, or jump in one direction or other. The fact that I skipped from Book 15 to this is apparently due to a mistake on my part, when I was trying to check out the earliest handful of books in this series held by my local public library. I'm going on (back?) to Book 16 next; it's titled Broken Prey. I've got five more Lucas Davenport novels to read after that; and then I'll be in the awkward position of having to skip back again and try to find copies of earlier installments that my library doesn't have.

I'm not saying these are the best books I've read in this decade, but I'll tell you this much: I'm not getting much else read while I stumble and weave through the John Sandford oeuvre (or John Camp, if you want his real name). A hard-core critic would probably describe it rather as an hors d'oeuvre, but I'm just a humble book booster, so I'll bear witness that this series of books has sufficed to keep me reading during every spare moment so far this summer. It's as good as a season of a TV crime show on DVD; it's so good, if someone turned it into a crime show, I would get that DVD. But when you're all about keeping the TV unplugged and stashed in the front closet, I have to give this series credit for keeping my couch time devoted to the joy of books.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Hidden Prey

Hidden Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

To continue reading the 27-book "Lucas Davenport" series, without springing for the latest hardcover, I had to skip backward in the series. This 15th installment is as far back as my local public library goes. It depicts the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's top agent at the height of his career, solving a murder on the Duluth waterfront that leads him to unearth a circle of Soviet-era spies, dating back to World War II, stretched out among Iron Range towns such as Virginia, Hibbing, and Eveleth. It finds him partnering with a Russian counterintelligence agent, witnessing the slaughter of a local policeman, and receiving a key clue from an eyewitness who is as determined to disappear as - and more successful at doing so than - the killers themselves.

The killers, plural, are an elderly man and the teenaged great-grandson in whom he has instilled a passion for Communism. Together they carry out a series of reckless yet infuriatingly successful stealth killings, fighting to protect their aging spy cell from post-Soviet Russian intelligence, from the Russian mafia, and from discovery by the American authorities. But as good as they are at covering their tracks, Lucas is even better at sniffing them out - realizing, for example, that the physically wrecked suspect they have framed for the murders would never have been able to outrun him in the hilly streets of Duluth.

This mystery hops back and forth between the sleuths' and the killers' points of view, building sympathy for both sides of their deadly game, and ultimately leading to the type of ending that reminds one of real life - bitterly short on satisfying resolution, but with the characters' frustration felt by the reader, and their compromises with their consciences sitting uneasily on ours. It's a grim, gruesome, sometimes shockingly violent, heartbreaking, occasionally sexy, not infrequently funny, fascinating exercise in the arts of committing and solving a series of crimes that stir up memories of revolutionary fervor. It is a glimpse into a type of extremism that could, and perhaps does, hide under the guise of ordinary citizenship. And it comes to one of those climaxes in which you bite your nails, in part, out of concern for what will happen to the bad guy. So, it's a most interesting cocktail of crime thriller and tragedy, set in a part of Minnesota not far from where I went to high school. I could have known the junior killer in this tale. The thought gives me chills.

John Sandford, in case you just tuned in, is the pen-name of sometime Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp. His fiction also includes the Virgil Flowers novels, a spinoff of this series.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Lights Out

Approximately 2:37 this morning, the power went out where I live. I must have been awake, lying in bed, because I noticed. The fan blowing toward my bed stopped blowing. The light from my bedside digital clock went out. Something in the next room went "beep." Ambient light from outside, like from a street lamp at the nearby corner, faded to black.

After about 30 seconds of eerie stillness and pitch blackness, the lights came back on - including my digital clock, now reading approximately 2:38 a.m. My first thought was, "Well, the battery backup works."

A moment later, the power went out again. This time, it seemed to go gradually, dimming the light of my alarm clock a bit before going altogether. This time, the outage lasted about a minute; then everything came back on again.

I was just starting to hope that was the end of the story when, about 2:39 a.m. by my clock, the lights went down and stayed down.

After lying in darkness a few minutes, listening to a rainstorm blow overhead, I saw the first flickerings of lightning in a storm that answered my unspoken question, "What is causing this outage?"

I decided I should do something, like my civic duty of calling the power company and reporting the outage.

In the dark, I could not find my latest electric bill. So, I groped for my cell phone and dialed directory assistance, asked for the power company, and got their voicemail system.

This is when I learned a grave lesson about my particular model of AT&T Go! phone - an LG clamshell model that I bought only a year or two ago when my previous Motorola model went on the fritz. I've noticed that I can't get my own voicemail to recognize any of my number button-pushes when I am, for example, trying to erase a message. Now I discovered that, after the first minute or so of a call, my phone won't let me respond to a voicemail prompt, such as, "To report a power outage, press 2." I can press 2 until my fingers bleed, but the recorded voice on the power company's voicemail system will just keep reading its list of options, then say, "Sorry, I didn't hear your response. Would you like to hear these options again?" After reading all the options two or three times, it says something to the effect, "Since you don't have anything to say to me, goodbye," and hangs up.

Somewhere between "Press 2 for a residential account" and "Press 2 to report a power outage," my phone flew up its own headphone jack.

Trying again - going through directory assistance again, because my phone didn't save the number for the power company - I hoped I could get through the prompts before the phone's willingness to do the voicemail-keypad-options dance expired, but I couldn't. Also, unlike some businesses, my power company doesn't have a voicemail system that will respond to voice prompts, such as, "Two, you dumbass!"

Sitting in the darkness, listening to thunder and rain on the roof, I realized that if my life ever depends on my ability to respond to a recorded voice's instructions to press numbers on my cell phone, I am going to die.

I tried calling AT&T Customer Service, but no one was available at that time of night to help me with this technical issue - though, to their credit, their voicemail system does respond to voice commands.

I tried looking for the setting in my phone that lets the number buttons go to sleep during a call, but only succeeded in draining the battery down to two bars - which, in the language of battery charge indicators, means "minutes away from dropping to one bar, then making a long series of obnoxious sound effects, then going dead." Those three bar-indicators are so helpful. You get three bars for days (in the case of my camera battery, weeks), telling you your battery is fully charged; then it goes two, one, zero in about a handful of minutes.

All this pushback started to piss me off. I wasn't going back to bed without knowing whether my alarm was going to go off in the morning. I wasn't going to accept not being able to do anything because my LG phone is stupid, and because my power company's voicemail system was programmed in 1995. So, I groped my way into a shirt, felt around for my house keys and car key, and found my way outdoors. I had decided I was going to try the landline phones at work.

I already knew I was going to have to pull the emergency release cord on my garage door opener, so I could back my car out of the house. I hadn't reckoned on how utterly black the garage was, inside. I couldn't find the cord, and I was starting to get lost in the garage. So I groped my way back out into the rain, got back into the house, and miraculously managed to find a flashlight I had stashed in the front closet without knocking anything over (it was a close thing, though). Back out to the garage; up with the garage door, now disconnected from its lift mechanism; out with the car; down with the garage door (manually; grr); and out to the street in my car, in reverse. I only narrowly avoided falling into the ditch, because I couldn't see where the end of the driveway was.

I made it to the office. I used the flashlight to find the keyhole on the back door. I picked up the first phone inside the building, and... dead. Yes, reader, the power outage was also a phone outage. I couldn't report the outage if my life, or the lives of everyone in town, depended on it. And I could tell by the darkness in the streets between home and the office that the outage affected at least a significant part of my town.

The happy ending is, about the time I reached the end of the blue streak of profanity that issued from my mouth when the office phone proved dead, the power came back on. It was about 3:30 a.m. and, since I no longer had any news to share with the power company, and a computer was right at my elbow, I decided to share this example of my mother's favorite literary genre, "Robbie stories."

EDIT: Shortly after I finished blogging this, the power cut out again, and stayed out from approximately 4:15 to 5:50 a.m. I went to bed kicking myself for not having taken advantage of the 45-minute interval when power was restored to call the power company and yell at them about their stupid voice mail system. But that's all right. I'll probably go to the AT&T Store later today and yell at them, instead, about their lousy cell phones.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Escape Clause

Escape Clause
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In the ninth and latest "Virgil Flowers novel" (that is, until Deep Freeze comes out Oct. 17, 2017), the cowboy-boot wearing, Leinie's-sipping, skirt-chasing Flowers, whose business-casual look is dialed a notch or two farther toward casual than most in his business, proves himself to be the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's choicest asset in his first adventure since fellow agent Lucas Davenport's separation from that agency. (Hint: This series is a spinoff from the 27-book series of "Prey" novels, featuring now post-BCA Lucas Davenport.) Either it's that, or it's the fact that everyone else in the BCA has been pulled off other duty to work security at the Minnesota State Fair, following the politically targeted bombing at the Iowa State Fair in Extreme Prey, but for one reason or the other, when two tigers are cat-napped from the Minnesota Zoo, Virgil gets the case.

I hope you're starting to pick up the pun in this book's title. "Clause," eh? OK, never mind.

Virgil's quarry in this book is not a pair of rare Amur tigers, but whoever stole them. The motive immediately, and correctly, suspected has to do with Chinese immigrants on the U.S. west coast being willing to pay virtually any price for traditional remedies, some of which involve the dried organs or ground-up bones of endangered animals. Thanks to his mind's quickness to make connections, it isn't long before Virgil suspects exactly the guys who are doing this to the irreplaceable cats. There's an inside guy at the zoo; there are two guys with connections to the Armenian mafia; there is a Chinese tycoon and his playboy son; and, at the center of the web, there's a sociopath who specializes in traditional medicine, since he was barred from practicing professional medicine.

This Winston Peck VI, M.D., becomes an increasingly absorbing character as he observes his own descent into murder and villainy with almost clinical detachment. Not that he isn't stressed out. His desperation not to get caught, his almost paralyzing anxiety, his growing dependence on Xanax and the number that plays on his brain, come close to eliciting the reader's sympathy, in spite of the cold-bloodedness with which he commits crime after grisly crime. It would be nice to say Virgil never misses a trick, and catches up with him step by dogged, methodical step. But actually, luck favors Peck most of the time, leaving the BCA's top investigator looking flat-footed while a reckless killer of man and beast slips past his surveillance, or spots him before he is spotted, time after time. The evidence that could help Flowers and his cronies Jenkins and Shrake find where Peck has stashed the tigers, keeps getting farther away. Whenever Peck makes a move that could get him caught, Flowers' attention is diverted by a separate case involving his girlfriend as a victim of assault.

And then, luck turns just enough to put Flowers and Peck together in one place, and you just know the backup won't arrive before one of them is dead. While a tiger's life teeters in the balance, a physically injured Virgil and a mentally unhinged Peck fight it out in one of the hair-raisingest scenes of suspense and violence I can remember ever reading. If the depiction of a habitual murderer as a Xanax-addled nervous wreck doesn't do it, I'm pretty sure this scene will make you remember the name of John Sandford - which is actually John Camp. Don't ask. Just go with it.

Storm Front

Storm Front
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

It begins in Israel, but most of this mystery-thriller unfolds in the part of Minnesota where I went to college. So, apart from everything else, it's a bit of a homecoming for me; I haven't been back there since the beginning of this century. It was fun to see the towns of Mankato (where I went to school), St. Peter (home of Gustavus Adolphus College, where many of my friends went to school), and other burgs in that area, at least through the eyes of fictional crooks and cops; though, after living in Missouri as long as I have, it takes some effort to check the urge to add an "s" at the end of St. Peter. One of Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent Virgil Flowers' two cases in this book has to do with a Gustavus anthropology prof who absconds from an archaeological dig in Israel with a priceless artifact that, if authentic, just might spell the end of Judaism and the modern state of Israel.

The Rev. Elijah Jones represents a branch of Lutheranism whose grip on the Bible is just loose enough to be capable of the theological and text-critical enormities unleashed in this novel; if awful Christian doctrine could be described as occult, I would be hanging an Occult Content Advisory on this book along with the Adult ditto that, with this series, invariably applies. But that's no excuse for Jones to go rabbiting off with a stone that seems to mention Solomon in an early form of Hebrew script, and a certain Egyptian Pharaoh in hieroglyphics, as though they're the same person. He obviously doesn't have pure motives, since he's already trying to sell it to the highest bidder, even before Virgil can tell whether the Israeli Antiquities Authority agent shadowing him on the case is really who she says he is.

While Virgil tries to reel in the terminally ill renegade minister before he does something worse than steal a national treasure, his garage gets fire-bombed, seriously endangering his fishing boat; which, as you know, is not cool at all. Also, he has to deal with a Mossad agent who has exceeded her brief, a couple of reluctant Hezbollah operatives, a pair of Turkish enforcers, a stone-cold Iranian killer, two rival celebrity treasure hunters, and an unspecified U.S. intelligence agency. And all that's before the target of his other investigation - a hot momma known as Ma Nobles, who is suspected of selling fake antique barn lumber - gets caught up in the stone-of-Solomon case for her own personal reasons.

If, like me, you have already peeked into some books farther down John Sandford's list of works, you might recognize Ma as a "doing business as" of Virgil's main squeeze from here on; so, it's interesting to see where that started. Their relationship is fraught from the start with the tension that results when opposites attract; though some of that tension may also come from the complexity of case involving all these characters' agendas, double-crosses, and power plays, not to mention gunplay, a kidnapping, a hospital prison-break, unusual vehicle chases, and the creative application of skinny-dipping as surveillance.

This is the seventh of nine-going-on-ten "Virgil Flowers novels" by the journalist formerly known as John Camp, also author of some 27 "Lucas Davenport" novels and at least 10 other books. I'm working through the parts of both series that my county's public library has in its collection. The fact that I've stopped reading anything else for the time being, bears witness to their addictiveness.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mad River

Mad River
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

The sixth "Virgil Flowers novel" hands the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's second-best case closer a case that, forgive the spoiler, is destined to become his most frustrating adventure so far. And that's saying a lot, considering how the femme fatale in Heat Lightning got away after successfully hitting everyone on her revenge-for-a-Vietnam-massacre hit list. In this book, a "Bonnie and Clyde plus one" team of down-on-their-luck small-town ne'er-do-wells goes on a southwestern Minnesota killing spree, and one of their victims is a cop. Unfortunately, that means most everyone in law enforcement plans to shoot to kill and ask questions later. Meanwhile, Virgil needs to collect the spree killers alive, so they can testify against the guy who hired them to shoot his estranged wife, their first victim.

How this turns out to be an exercise in frustration is best left up to your imagination, or to your reading enjoyment. I'll just mention that Virgil gets to spend some time with his parents - including one chilling scene when the Rev. Flowers, Virgil's dad, goes pale while listening to his son talk about his case, realizing that a couple of parishioners who missed Sunday services might be on the killers' list of targets. Also, he enjoys a romance with a girl who wouldn't give him the time of day in high school, and he continues experimenting with the concept of market research as an aid to crime solving (further to his previous adventure, in Shock Wave). But that's about all the joy he has, in a manhunt littered with blood and death, in which the police can't seem to do anything except wait and see where the next body drops, because there are just too many places a couple of desperate kids can hide. And then there's the problem of folks taking justice into their own hands, which puts Virgil in a lose-lose-lose situation. And finally, he gets his ass kicked, which is never fun.

So, if you want a break from the kind of mystery in which everything works out and justice is served, here you go. Troubling, emotionally turbulent, at times wrenchingly painful, and shot through a lens tinted with human frailty and an agonizing sense of helplessness, it is a mystery-thriller of the most human kind. It shows that even a terrific detective doesn't always come out a winner, and maybe (from some points of view) shouldn't. And it also shows, once again, that where award-winning journalist John Camp (writing under the pseudonym John Sandford) is concerned, the supply of powerhouse murder/suspense plots might just be inexhaustible. Virgil, for example, has dealt with a mad bomber, a team of assassins, a child-sex-abuse cult, a local government-corruption conspiracy that turned to murder, a series of revenge murders about a crime covered up years ago, and a lesbian country-western singer who can't catch a break without somebody killing whoever is about to make her career. Those are just the installments I have read so far. On deck, for me, are Storm Front and Escape Clause.