Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Field of Prey

Field of Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

I usually like to start reading a series of books at the beginning and go straight through it in order. But the opportunity to get into John Sandford's "Lucas Davenport" thrillers fell into my lap in the form of books 24 and 25 of the popular series, which stretches back to 1989's Rules of Prey and is due to add a 27th title later this year. I got them, along with the first two books of the spinoff "Virgil Flowers" series, for a total of $2 at a garage sale. I call that a reasonable inducement to start reading a series at any point in its progress. And while some pieces of main character Lucas Davenport's backstory remain somewhat vague to me - like how he became super-rich while also serving as an ethically clean state homicide detective - this 24th installment in the series is enough of a stand-alone mystery to keep me hooked from beginning to end.

Lucas Davenport is a high-fashion clotheshorse, a high-speed driver of either a Porsche or a Mercedes SUV, and a politically well-connected agent in Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He has approximately four detectives working under him - the thuggish Jenkins and Shrake, who would rather be golfing; the laid-back, and frequently laid, Virgil Flowers, who would rather be fishing; and my favorite, Del Capslock, a character whose name the author obviously made up while staring blankly at his computer keyboard. When Del gets shot in this book, one wonders if he might die to make way for a new character named Tab Backspace.

One fine week, when all his subordinates are working on other cases, Lucas gets pulled into a serial killer investigation that started when a couple of horny teenagers paused for a pee, while parking on an abandoned farmstead near the city of Red Wing in southeastern Minnesota. The kids smelled something so bad that one of them brought a cop back with him the next day, and the two of them found an abandoned cistern full of decomposing bodies. Some of the remains in this grisly burial turn out to have been grave-robbed, but most of them appear to be the work of a serial rapist and strangler, who may have caused the disappearances of as many as 20 women in about as many years.

At first, Lucas isn't heavily involved in this case. Then the agent in charge of the investigation turns up murdered, apparently after having a sudden insight into the case that puts him at the loud end of the killer's gun before he knows what he's found. Lucas, one of the last people to see BCA Agent Bob Shaffer alive, has to identify the body, and a short time later, finds a text on his phone from Shaffer's widow, saying, "Find him and kill him." And so, even though he still isn't the agent in charge of the case, finding the guy who put all those bodies in the cistern becomes a personal matter. Unfortunately, trying to make the connection Shaffer made, that led to his death, doesn't work. Doing the same investigation that Shaffer had already documented, also seems like wasted time. Solving the case becomes an exercise in looking at the evidence in a way it hasn't been looked at before. And the pressure is on, with the press hounding the BCA about why the creep hasn't been caught yet, an eyewitness spreading suspicion about an innocent suspect, and a female county investigator slowly accepting the grim reality that someone in her community is a murderer.

This is one of those mysteries in which the reader is privileged to know whodunit from the beginning, though there is a twist connected with the killer's identity - or rather, a twistedness in his state of mind that you might or might not see coming - which ensures that Lucas' final race to save his female colleague from becoming the Black Hole Killer's next victim will make you a nervous wreck.

John Sandford is the pen-name of John Camp, an award-winning journalist who, I am surprised to learn, lives not in Minnesota but in New Mexico, in spite of the bulk of his fiction being set in the Land of 10,000 lakes. He writes with a level of geographical and cultural accuracy that seems convincing to me, a longtime former resident of Minnesota who still visits family there from time to time. His writing is also well stocked with laughs, sexiness, and grit in its depiction of believable good guys trying to catch believable bad guys. The back-cover blurbs by reviewers and other authors often describe Sandford's novels as great "summer reads." I don't think I could stretch a book out over a whole summer. But 27 of these would make a nice dent in my next two or three weeks of vacation.

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