Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Winter Prey

Winter Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

If you're catching up on the Lucas Davenport/Prey series as I am – in random order – you might have come upon this book, like me, in a recently re-issued paperback with a new introduction by its author, recalling it as one of his best installments in the series. And you'll also be interested to discover that this is the one where he meets Weather Karkinnen, who will (farther along in the series) become his wife. It's the one where he gets a certain scar whose origins are discussed in several later books, and where he apparently decides to go back to being an actively serving law enforcement officer instead of just a writer of computer games and training programs. All this is very intriguing; I didn't even realize there were Davenport novels where he was completely out of police work. But of course, in this novel, he gets pulled back in.

It happens in the dead of a bitterly cold Wisconsin winter, while Davenport is working out some dissatisfaction with the way his life has turned out by holing up in a cabin and avoiding work. Then the sheriff of a neighboring county asks him to take over an investigation nobody in his department has the experience to handle – a multiple murder in the sleepy town of Grant. A whole family has been wiped out and their house burned down around their bodies, apparently by a killer who lives in the community. The local Catholic priest emerges as an early suspect because he claims to have visited the victims that night, and his car was seen making the short trip home only moments before the fire was called in. From the cops' point of view, the puzzle is really, basically, about how the priest can be telling the truth when there seems to be no possible way he could have been seen leaving the slain family's home when he was.

Looked at that way, it's a classic whodunit. Looked at another way, however, it's a haunting, nerve-jangling thriller set against a backdrop of dangerously cold winter conditions, the savagery of starving animals, and the ickiness of a ring of child sexual abusers hidden within a small town. Then, to top off the chill factor, there's a terrifying killer who thinks of himself as the Iceman, who eludes capture with the aid of snowshoes and a snowmobile while somehow sticking close enough to the investigation to have an inside track on how close the authorities are on his trail. Until they figure out who he is, the good guys have a hard time even figuring out why he's choosing to attack the people he does – including an innocent priest whose reputation is ruined, a middle schooler whose only crime was seeing something he shouldn't have, and the town surgeon who is shaping up to be the love of Davenport's life.

Like a lot of the Prey novels, this investigation turns into quite a bloodbath. Its violence and the sickness of the villains may be hard to take; it definitely calls for an Adult Content Advisory. However, it also depicts some nifty crime-fighting procedures, has exciting chases, and presents a convincing counterfeit of reality in which nothing ever goes as planned. I'll be honest: I correctly guessed whodunit long before his identity was confirmed, though I immediately doubted my guess because how he could have done it was more than I could figure out. Seeing that come into focus was one of the things that compensated for the grimness, the brutal harshness, the downright tragedy that laced this plot together with a thematic tightness unusual even for such a skilled hand as Sandford's.

This 1993 book is the fifth Lucas Davenport/Prey novel by the former newspaper journalist whose real name is John Camp. It's also, to-date, the 18th book in the series that I've read and first in canon order, all at the same time. Click here for a mansplanation of why I'm reading this series in such a mixed-up manner; sorry, I'm just tired of repeating it. A 31st installment in the series, Ocean Prey, is due to be released in April 2021. Sandford is also the author of four Kidd novels, 12 Virgil Flowers thrillers, the "Singular Menace" trilogy co-authored with Michele Cook, the science fiction novel Saturn Run with co-author Ctein, and several other titles.

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