John Sandford (real name John Camp) is among the more prolific writers of crime fiction. I first started reading his very popular Prey series about 14 years ago, and got hooked on the escapades of hard-boiled Minneapolis cop Lucas Davenport as he tracked serial killers through a 21 (soon to be 22) novel-run.
Davenport is Mike Hammer, Mike Shane, and Dirty Harry all balled up in one dynamic, womanizing, skull-cracking cop. Over time, he has settled down somewhat: he is married to Weather—a beautiful and accomplished surgeon—and now spends time with his teenage daughter by another woman (who is alarmingly like her father), Weather, and little Sam, the baby. Weather is pregnant once again. Not bad for a 50-year old guy whose life is so busy chasing bad guys that we seldom see him at home. A domesticated Lucas Davenport is almost more than we can believe, but he plays the part seriously even if the role of husband and father is overshadowed in Sanford’s latest, Buried Prey, by his obsession with a cold case that he always believed the cops had screwed up.
Some of the later of Sanford’s Prey novels have disappointed me, because it seemed that they were quickly pieced together. He makes frequent use of what I call a capped paragraph break—breaking from scene to scene with paragraphs that capitalize the first five or six words in a sentence. I borrowed this in my most recent novel, Along the River Road, in fact replacing chaptering all together and adding bold to the capped words. Not ineffective. However, in some of the later novels there were more and more such breaks, which suggested to me that he was writing short paragraphs on the run, just to complete a novel. In any event, some of his later books lacked the intensity and depth of Rules of Prey (his first in the series, 1989) and—my all-time favorite—Mortal Prey (featuring a fascinating female hit woman who hides out in the Soulard district of St. Louis: she has Lucas in her sights.).
In Buried Prey, the old Sanford is back. And so is the old Lucas. In a flashback, we see Lucas as a young cop investigating the disappearance of two young girls in the mid-80s. This would be the case that saw his rise from patrolman to plain-clothes detective, and it would haunt him until the present day because, not only did they not catch the person responsible, but they honed in on a homeless man who was killed by cops in a sewer. Case closed. Politics had more to do with it than anything: it was important to claim they had the right guy. Davenport didn’t think so at the time, and the whole thing ate at him for years..
Now, present time, two bodies are unearthed during an excavation. The two missing girls. Davenport, now with the BCA (Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension) and a man with the ear of the Governor, begins to worm his way into the investigation again in order to hopefully get it right this time.
He finds himself working with Detective Marcy Sherrill, with whom he once had spent six months engaged in a hot and heavy romance (he denied the rumor that they once made it on one of the desks in the office. It just wasn’t true, he claimed: they fell off and actually did it on the floor!). Ah, to be young again! Sherrill, now chief of detectives for the Minneapolis PD (she has Davenport’s old job), is a good cop and gets involved with the investigation, leaving one to wonder how the relationship will play out. There are still feelings there. But, more importantly, there is the respect that one good cop has for another.
Sanford is master of the police procedure story. On page after page you find yourself working on even the slimmest leads, following up with a knock at the door, talking with someone who might know something, and in many cases finding that it all goes nowhere. The killer has an amazing ability to stay under everyone’s radar. Meanwhile, you are given tantalizing glimpses of what is in his mind, although you never are able to piece it together until near the very end. In the hands of a less skillful plotter, a reader could quickly become frustrated. But it is as though you are part of the investigation. That is the magic of Sanford’s writing.
And, of course, part of Davenport’s charm is how he frequently ignores procedure, something for which he is constantly taking flak from his supervisors. After the killer takes the life of a cop who is close to him, his wife, his partner Del Capslock, and a few of their friends realize that Lucas is out to kill. They know they can’t let that happen.
Sanford is at his best here. If you like hard-hitting crime stories, give Buried Prey a read. And, in case you have never read any of the others, put some of them on your summer reading list.
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris