John Sandford is at the top of his game in Stolen Prey

John Sandford is one my favorite crime fiction writers. I have read every one of the novels in his Prey series (see my March 25th review of his 2011 novel Buried Prey), and until now my favorite among them was his thirteenth, Mortal Prey (2002). It is the story of hard-boiled detective Lucas Davenport’s life and death struggle with a beautiful hit woman named Clara Rinker (set in the Soulard district of St. Louis, Missouri). But his newest novel, Stolen Prey (Penguin Group USA, 2012), may just have displaced Mortal Prey as my new number one.

I got the feeling in later years (Rules of Prey, the first Prey novel, debuted twenty-three years ago!) that some of Sandford’s writing had fallen into the formulaic trap that sometimes closes when a writer is expected to produce regularly. If so, he showed his old spark in Buried Prey last year, and in Stolen Prey he is at the top of his game.

While reading Stolen Prey, I was reminded of the game of three-dimensional chess that you used to see on the original Star Trek series, because Stolen Prey is a novel with several dimensions. First, detective Lucas Davenport is mugged at an ATM by a couple of meth-heads and his arm is encased in a plaster cast for several weeks. It’s not often someone gets the drop on Davenport, the rakish, hard-nosed protagonist of the Prey series since its inception. Is he getting old? Well, if you think the meth-heads are going to get away with it, you don’t know much about Lucas Davenport. The search for the meth-heads will involve his old friend Virgil Flowers, and will eventually be resolved in a barn filled with horse manure. Just go with it. It’s entertaining.

But this recurring motif is light entertainment compared with the central mystery, which begins when a family is found dead in their home, the mother and daughter raped and tortured, the son shot several times, and the husband carved up—but not before his fingers are cut off joint by joint.

The murders scream Mexican drug cartel, and we quickly learn that this is precisely who is responsible. The only problem is, no one can figure out why this family, who lived in a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis, was targeted.

The suspects pop up one at a time, and we soon learn that some bright young people with access to computers in the dead man’s company, and in a Minneapolis bank, have noticed large automatic deposits flowing through a business account that no one seems to be minding. It gets a bit technical, and you have to pay close attention. Having no idea that the money is intended for a drug cartel—after all, this is Minnesota—they decide it wouldn’t hurt to funnel some of it into accounts of their own and then, with the help of an Israeli con woman, convert it to gold. Neat, clean, and who would ever suspect?

The gruesome murders make them aware that somebody does miss the money, does suspect, and is now intent on recovering it—and the people who took it. Apparently, twenty-two million dollars is not considered chump change south of the border.

There are several things that you can usually expect from a Sandford novel. He is great at detailing police procedure, including the dead ends, in an entertaining way. In a less skillful writer’s hands you would toss the book aside after a few pages. But he reveals the details the way a skillful stripper reveals what’s under the feathers: you only see what he wants you to see, when he wants you to see it, but your attention never wavers.

Like a serial murderer, Sandford’s novels have a signature. Actually, more than one, but the one that I look for is when someone—frequently a cop—tells a joke. There’s a good one in here—a groaner, but I like groaners. I won’t tell it and spoil the fun. But Davenport’s smart-ass personality is infectious, and I find his comic relief delightful, like when he tells another cop that he is addicted to line dancing, so addicted in fact that his shrink had to put him in a two-step program. Groan!

You need comic relief in Davenport’s world, a dark place where killers use various utensils to take a body apart in a basement, and after packaging it decide to go get some pizza as though they had just finished a household project. A gritty and macabre scene occurs later in which these same killers have a difficult time disposing of the body because they are too short to reach the top of the dumpster and the body is like Jello in its wrappings, squishy and hard to manage. Davenport’s world is a world of darkness and death.

The Lucas Davenport we see these days is much tamer than when we first met him in the early 1990s. He now spends his time with his wife and three children instead of nailing his female partners on the desk in his office. One of his children is high-school-age Letty, whom we first met in his fourteenth, Naked Prey (2003). Davenport and his wife Weather, a successful Minneapolis surgeon, adopted Letty after Davenport rescued her from frightful circumstances.

Now Letty is a normal teenager and, if we did not know she was adopted, we would swear that she was every bit her father’s child. She has the same cool, calm approach to life, and is unflappable in a crisis. Davenport takes her to the shooting range with him, discusses his cases with her, and we see a bond developing that may be key to extending the Prey series into the radar of yet another generation. In Stolen Prey, Letty will figure frighteningly in one of the most surprising denouements of any of Sandford’s novels to date.

Stolen Prey will involve you, shock you, and leave you wanting more. That triadic formula is perhaps the most recognizable of John Sandford’s signatures.

Copyright Isaac Morris (4/5)

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