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.

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