Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Shock Wave

Shock Wave
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

Virgil Flowers, an agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension who happens to live a few blocks from where I went to college, is a small-town Lutheran preacher's son (though, in one book, author John Sandford had a lapse of memory and said Presbyterian) who doesn't believe much anymore, but he still has to think about God before he goes to sleep. His methods as a homicide investigator feature large measures of improvisation, gossiping with the regulars at the local cafe, hopping into bed with the sexiest female cop/witness/suspect in sight, and sneaking off to work "undertime" in the fishing boat he hauls behind his state-owned 4Runner; but his closure rate speaks for itself. He hates to carry a gun (once claiming, when asked why, that the weight of a gun on one's hip leads to back problems later in life), but he rather likes getting into fights. Strange and notoriously unfriendly cats have been known to walk up to him, climb on his shoulder, and settle down to purr. He has been known to act heroically while under fire, but to freeze up when he feels responsible for an innocent person's death. In this book, when he survives a mad bomber's attempt on his life by sheer luck, he comes close to the edge of hysteria, then (on the advice of his BCA superior, Lucas Davenport), he sits down at Country Kitchen and devours an enormous breakfast, and goes back to work feeling better; and is then gobsmacked when another cop expresses amazement at his coolness. He's the epitome of "smarter than he looks" - outwardly an easygoing surfer dude/cowboy whose wardrobe majors in indie rock band T-shirts, and inwardly the one guy involved in a federal, state, and local joint investigation who is going to see through not one, but two red herrings dragged across the killer's trail. He is, aside from his unhealthy preference for Diet Coke and loose women, one of the awesomest sleuths ever.

And this is the sleuth the BCA sends to the fictional Butternut Falls, in the non-fictional Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, when a second bomb in a week targets a PyeMart facility, killing one person and injuring another. PyeMart, based in Grand Rapids, Mich., is sort of an upmarket competitor of Walmart or Target, run by a guy whose lines (in my mental full-cast recording) are read by 1980s TV pitch-man Victor Kiam. The first bomb went off at its headquarters, apparently targeting Willard Pye himself and his board of directors; but it missed, because the board was drinking breakfast in the next room, and only a secretary was killed. The second went off at the construction site of the Butternut Falls store, for which the city council's zoning approval was a suspiciously sudden reversal. Some people are screaming corruption; others are screaming about the disruption of locally owned business; and don't even ask about the fishermen and environmentalists, who worry the runoff from the PyeMart parking lot will poison one of the state's last pristine trout streams. Naturally, the bomber is a left-wing crazy - either economically, politically, or environmentally - and it shouldn't take too long for him (probably a "him") to make a mistake and get caught.

But something isn't fitting together for Virgil. It isn't just that the killer seems to miss his target half the time. First, there's still no explanation for how the first bomb made it past the security at PyeMart headquarters. Then, why did he expend at least 16 bombs' worth of his limited supply of explosives to destroy a stockpile of water and sewer pipes that had yet to be installed? And why, dear God why, did he blow up Virgil's fishing boat? What could this nutjob be trying to make happen?

To be sure, the investigation lands some big fish. Flowers' thuggish cronies Jenkins and Shrake have to come up to Butternut to help nab the crooked mayor and aldermen who greased the skids for the new PyeMart, in return for some cleverly concealed bribes. This investigation pays off with some thrilling moments of entertainment, but it doesn't get Flowers, the sheriff, or the ATF agent in charge of the bombing investigation any closer to stopping the killer. When hard evidence seems to be getting them nowhere, Flowers tries an experiment in "market research," hoping to use the responses of a select group to an opinion poll to narrow the list of suspects a bit further than "somebody in Kandiyohi County." But then a potential suspect seemingly blows himself up, and it seems too easy. Looking past that too-pat solution to the mystery, Virgil realizes the real killer has yet to set his most explosive trap.

Since I front-end-loaded this review with my opinion of Virgil, as a mystery/thriller hero, there isn't much left to say except, I hope I haven't spoiled too much of the boom-boom, funny, sexy, Adult-Content-Advisory-worthy fun for you. But if that's a worry, there are (or soon will be) nine other Virgil Flowers novels to surprise you, in addition to 27 mysteries featuring Davenport. (This is Virgil Flowers #5, for your information.) Drop Moby-Dick, which is overrated anyway, and read this. You're welcome.

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