Sunday, May 28, 2017


by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

I skipped from the second to eighth of the "going on ten" Virgil Flowers novels because, well, it was there, at a store where I too often indulge my paperback-buying habit. I've been on a John Sandford kick lately. Also, as an editor of a small-town weekly newspaper, I couldn't help being interested in a murder mystery in which the first victim to drop is the editor of a small-town weekly newspaper. I seem to recall my first Virgil Flowers experience involved a series of crimes in which the perp was also the editor of a small-town weekly newspaper. I have a theory that Sandford writes that kind of character easily, after being (in a previous career) the Pulitzer-winning journalist John Camp, late of the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. Maybe that, along with the fact that he writes about Minnesota like someone who has spent a lot of time there, explains why his work strikes a chord with me. I recently calculated that if I had been born during the last year I lived in Minnesota, I would be old enough to drink. But it seems like yesterday when he describes places like... What the heck? Buchanan County, Minnesota? Where is that?

All right, long story short: it's fictional.1 This is a literary device I like to call "changing names to protect the author." I guess most communities would be thrilled to be featured in an installment of a bestselling series of novels that bring out the local color. But when the thriller depicts your community as a hotbed of methamphetamine wholesalers and dognapping hillbillies (who resell the stolen pooches, mostly for medical experiments), the thrill might go out of it. Throw in a school board that is conspiring to embezzle bazillions from the taxpayers, and that uses its closed sessions (supposedly to discuss personnel issues) to vote on whether to murder someone... yeah, Buchanan County it is.

Virgil Flowers stumbles upon this amazing situation only because his fishing buddy, the improbably named Johnson Johnson2, is concerned about the dogs. But his investigation of the missing dogs leads them to discover a big-time meth operation, and that gets the DEA involved, which delays the unraveling of the dog case. Then one of the meth goons, who might also be involved with the dognapping scheme, gets shot in exactly the same way as the aforementioned small-time weekly newspaper editor, which is meant to misdirect Flowers from snooping into the school board. It doesn't work, though, because by then Flowers has found evidence the slain journalist was onto a big story about corruption. As Flowers applies his signature brand of psychological warfare - one that could be described as "hosing down the scene with high-test bullshit" - the conspiracy starts to crack up. More bodies drop. A couple of folks high-tail it out of town. A couple more attempt an ambush on Flowers himself. And in a disaster that comes to haunt him, a local character sacrifices his life to give Flowers the evidence he needs to put every taxpayer's nightmare behind bars.

Also, helped by a boy who knows the backwoods like you know the back of your hand, he does find the dogs. And a dog finds him. All part of a funny, sexy, sometimes scary, often suspenseful and exciting mystery that, for anyone who might be keeping track, is set during the same period as the Lucas Davenport mystery Field of Prey. Since I started reading random selections from both series by John Sandford, this is the first time I've actually caught both sides of the conversations between the two sleuths, who are frequently on the cell phone with each other in their overlapping, interrelated adventures. Alas, the local stores are fresh out of John Sandford paperbacks that are new to me. I guess, if I want to encounter more of these overlaps, I'll have to raid the library.

1I just wikied it and there was, in fact, a Buchanan County in Minnesota, but only from 1857 to 1861, and not in the part of the state depicted in this novel. The real Buchanan County is now part of Pine County, bordering Wisconsin in the northeastern part of the state, and the setting of another series of mysteries by a local author named Dean Hovey. The Buchanan County in this book is somewhere along the Mississippi, downstream from the Twin Cities in southeastern Minnesota, with Wisconsin on the other side of the river. The book also mentions a Fillmore County as being nearby, in the context of a joke about the counties being named after two of the worst presidents in U.S. history; unfortunately, Fillmore County actually exists, along the Iowa border near the southeastern corner of the state. So, my guess is, the setting of this story is a fictionalized version of the adjacent Houston County, in the tippy-toe corner of Minnesota, bordering both Iowa and Wisconsin.

2His daddy was crazy about boat motors, apparently. Honestly, what else do you expect from an author who names a recurring character (Del Capslock) after two buttons on his keyboard?

No comments: