Lucas Davenport is on the hunt again

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.

Rating (3/5)

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Books That Might Be Worth a Look, with snippets that intrigue

Here are three books that look intriguing, with some snippets of reviews that caught my eye. I may consider these for future reviews.

Gods Without Men: A Novel, by Hari Kunzru

“Gods Without Men” takes its title from Balzac: “In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing… It is God without men.” Kunzru uses this as an epigraph, but its influence, I think, is more profound. What Balzac is saying is that only in such a landscape can we strip away “this cherished fiction, the fiction of the essential comprehensibility of the world.” Only there can we confront, or even contemplate, the impassive face of God. “The face of a God,” declares Cy Bachman, talking about rhymes and echoes in the Neue Galerie. “What else would we be looking for?” Although, he acknowledges a moment later, “I think the real question is whether God believes in me.”

-David Ullin, Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2012 Review

‘Half-Blood Blues’, by Esi Edugyan

Though “Half-Blood Blues” is a jazz book, its greatest strength lies more in the rhythms of its conversations and Griffiths’ pitch-perfect voice than in any musical exchanges. A simple, one-word sentence that could be just an expletive — “Hell” — becomes so much more as Griffiths watches Nazis march into Paris under “that dancing black spider,” and his dazed account of a band of weary survivors coalescing around Hiero’s “Half-Blood Blues” is intoxicating enough to send you crate-digging through a record store’s back room for anything like it.

-Chris Barton, Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2010

Enemies: A History of the FBI by Tim Weiner

During the 1960s, the FBI illegally wiretapped and spied relentlessly on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.and other civil rights leaders, convinced they were under Moscow’sdirection, but ignored the predatory Ku Klux Klan, the most violent U.S. terrorist group of the century. Hoover balked at investigating the Mafia, but happily built voluminous files on the sex lives ofJohn F. Kennedy and others.

-Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2012

So many books, so little time!

I would appreciate comments on any books that YOU feel would be worth taking a look at.

I am currently reading The Ninth Ward, by Jewell Parker Rhodes, the story of a 12-year old girl who endures Hurricane Katrina from one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in the Big Easy. It was originally released a year or so ago, and is soon to be released in paperback. A friend who has done relief work in the ninth ward recommended it.

The Queen of Darkness is Back — With a Difference

More than twenty years ago, I picked up a novel by Anne Rice titled The Vampire Lestat while waiting for a plane to New Orleans. I was captivated by the story on the trip down and finished the novel during my week-long stay–the first of many visits to New Orleans. This novel, later made into a blockbuster motion picture, brought vampires into the modern world. My introduction to the world of Anne Rice happened the week I began my passionate love affair with New Orleans, a city haunted by bodies that lay beneath the pavement of Rampart Street –and now and forevermore by minions of the undead brought to life by this Maven of the Macabre who, at the time, lived in the Garden District.

Rice blew away the dust of  Bela Lugosi and replaced the moldy antiquated bloodsuckers of the past with a new breed that would thrive and later fascinate my adult children and teenage grandchildren in the Twilight series. Anne Rice made vampires not only scary, but approachable, bringing out what was latent in the myth all along: the idea that there’s something so sexy about a guy (or girl) who wants to bite your neck!

Evil had finally encroached on the present, with rock-star vampires and vixens. Evil, it seems, was no longer a thing of the past, but a very real part of our present. The evil of our lives we know all too well, but we prefer to relegate it to fiction. It’s safer.

I must admit that I had a hard time with her books following Lestat. I frequently gave up after a hundred pages or so. I am not sure why. It all seemed so formulaic. This happens with writers who make it big. They are expected to repeat, and they do. Sometimes with success, sometimes not so. But imagine my intrigue when Rice found religion again a few years ago, returning to the Catholicism of her youth, and penned Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, the first of a seres about Jesus. I read this one with interest, but not much enthusiasm. It was well researched, but left me with a feeling of, “Okay. So what?”

Now comes “The Wolf Gift.” This one I have not been able to put down. It would appear that her fascination with God-made-man–her visit to the light–has given her even greater depth in an analysis of Man-made-beast, an incarnation of evil that, strangely, sheds more light on goodness than her recent foray into religion.

A young, extremely good-looking (naturally) man named Rueben, a fledgling reporter, meets with an older, drop-dead gorgeous (naturally) woman named Marchent to look at a home she owns in Mendocino County, California. He immediately falls in love. With the older woman, of course (whom he doesn’t take long to undress) and with the old, spooky home itself. There, after a night of messing up the sheets in a four-poster bed, the two are attacked by two intruders. The men are Marchent’s drug-addled siblings who are intent on killing their sister and thus enriching themselves through the estate. However, there is a problem. Out of nowhere, the men are slashed, ripped apart, defaced, and eviscerated by a … well we’re not sure. Reuben stumbles into the fray only to be attacked by the beast, which he swears is a large dog. He is bitten, but not killed. The dog backs off for some reason, letting him live.

Anne Rice returns us to darkness in "Wolf Gift"

Yes, you guessed it. The “dog” is a werewolf. Now, Reuben is a werewolf too. You know how that goes. Once bitten…. But this time the full moon has nothing to do with it. He changes at any time. Eventually, he can control it. And the explanation is less mysterious: it is less of a curse than it is a virus, one that attacks the pluripotent progenitor cells that we all have in us. These are the cells that make umbilical stem cells so promising since they can turn into anything. Now we know! And all those years we thought it had to do with lunar magnetism!

The story that follows is a rich one, with elements of Superman and Beauty of the Beast. You could say the story is Grimm. The newly enhanced Reuben has super-sensitive hearing. He can hear people from a long way away calling for help. This “Man Wolf” can smell intent in humans. When he encounters someone who is evil, he can smell it. Then he shreds them, leaving the innocent victims alone. The innocent victims do not smell of evil, and something in the wolf’s nature makes it difficult, if not impossible, to harm them. Frequently, he even dials 911 and informs authorities that help is needed. He protects the innocent, and soon becomes a hero in the eyes of the public–with some ambivalence of course. An animal-like creature is playing judge, jury, and executioner in scattering the bloody remains of perpetrators around the streets of San Francisco. What about their rights?

There is romance too. At one point, after saving some hapless victim from being tortured, the “Man Wolf”–still in his lupine condition–encounters a very attractive woman (go figure)  living alone in the woods. Strangely, she is not frightened by him. In fact, she is inexplicably physically drawn to him! (“My, what big teeth you have! My, what a big….). What is interesting is that the woman who relishes being pawed (pardon the pun) by the “man wolf” is described in such as way (she has long, prematurely white hair) as to suggest Rice herself! How weird is that?

The woman, Laura, is damaged goods, having lost a husband and children to tragic circumstances. She and Reuben soon become deeply connected. She is as protective of him, as he is of her. At one point, when Reuben is attacked by another “Man Wolf”, she drives an axe blade into the attacker’s skull, slowing the critter just long enough for Reuben to behead him. Buy why would the creature want Reuben dead?

The encounter with another “Man Wolf” makes one thing all too clear: Reuben is not alone. There are others. Are they too intent on his demise?

The blood and gore and then more blood and gore notwithstanding, Rice’s recent passage through religious enchantment , however brief it may have been, left definite and distinctive marks on her writing. Her venture into the light has given her a deeper understanding of the darkness. Somehow, in the mixture of the two, she has achieved an understanding of human nature that is worth pondering. We not only see evil, we understand it from the perspective of one who is forced to live it. We can even, possibly, feel the admixture in our own souls. Along the way, she alludes to theologians as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Saint Augustine, the quotes popping up in conversations between Reuben and his older brother, Jim, a Roman Catholic priest. Her recent religious side trip has made Anne Rice a writer to be much more deeply appreciated.

This is a mature work by an intelligent woman who has worked though many painful episodes in her life.  For once, we find something human in the heart of the beast. We know all too well that there is something beastly lurking in the heart of humans. Perhaps an amalgam of the two might enhance our nature. Wolves kill to eat or to protect themselves. Humans kill…because they can.

I recently read an article in the Chicago Sun-Times about a woman who stumbled into a bar, drunk, only to be led outside by a group of teenagers. There, they beat her, robbed her, raped her, and left her for dead naked in someone’s front yard.

It kind of makes you wish there was such a thing as a “Man Wolf” who would rip miscreants like this apart and then disappear into the night.

Rating (4/5) 

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

The Preston-Child Brand: A Symbiosis

Lincoln Child is a writer. A good one who has written several solo bestsellers–only one of which I have read: Terminal Freeze (2009). Douglas Preston is a writer. A good one who has written several solo bestsellers, both fiction and non-fiction. His most famous is the Monster of Florence (2008), a true-crime story written with Italian journalist Mario Spezi. Monster is currently being translated for the big screen, starring George Clooney.

So, Child is chocolate and Preston is peanut butter. Whoops! What happens when you put the two together? A whole new treat. This happened in the mid-90s when the two collaborated on The Relic (1995), which was later made into a motion picture. That was just the beginning. Together, in a new symbiosis, Preston and Child have produced 18 novels, not one of which I have missed. Together, these two men have collaborated on books that involve the readers in ways that many writers aspire to but few actually succeed.

In the process, they have introduced us to unforgettable characters like ethereal special agent Aloysius Pendergast and the hardcore Vincent D’Agosto.

Their latest novel features the newest of their characters, a nuclear scientist named Gideon Crew. Crew was first introduced in their 2011 novel Gideon’s Sword. As you can imagine, Crew is damaged goods. As a child he saw his father shot down by federal agents for a crime he did not commit, and spent his life trying to salvage his family name.

Gideon’s Corpse (Grand Central Publishing, 2012) , finds Crew–a man under a death sentence due to an inoperable aneurysm–in the middle of a plot that can’t help resonating with readers today: a terrorist attempt to detonate a nuclear device located–somewhere. Where? Well, that’s one of the problems. Nobody knows for sure.

Preston and Child take their cues from Hollywood, and from action films like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Narrow escapes, relentless chases, and suspenseful physical confrontations abound in the pages of their books and this latest is no exception. There is also an unlikely love affair between Crew and a much-younger woman who is the daughter of a suspect. Of course, as is the case in fiction, the sex is “spectacular,” and it is amazing how quickly the young woman goes from being furious over her kidnapping by Crew to clawing at his clothing.

The story line–excepting perhaps the “spectacular” sex which never happens for guys in real life–is plausible, and its plausibility is what kept me turning pages. It is a very real concern these days that some rogue terrorists might get their hands on a nuclear device, whether small enough to put in a suitcase or so big it has to go in a minivan–and set it off somewhere in this country. Preston and Child keep the reader engaged with the preparations made by the military, the CIA, Homeland Security, and a host of other agencies who work to identify possible targets, evacuate heavily populated areas, and work tirelessly to find out who the culprits are before the device is detonated.

Tension is something that Preston and Child have honed to a fine edge. In Gideon’s Corpse, there is tension between Crew and the FBI Agent Fordyce (he trusts him, then he doesn’t, then he does); between Crew and the federal agencies who use him but fear his “lone wolf” tactics; between Crew and his new lover (she hates him, then she ravishes him, then she doesn’t trust him); and her father (he’s not a suspect, then he is a suspect). It’s Exhausting. It’s Exhilarating. It’s so damned much fun!

Preston and Child have scored another hit with Gideon’s Corpse. If history is any indicator, you may be seeing this in a movie theater near you in a very few years.

Copyright March 2, 2012 Isaac Morris