Deep Freeze, by John Sandford (2017)

John Sandford, Deep FreezeI don’t read much in the way of current best-sellers, but I can’t resist John Sandford whenever he comes out with something new.  I formed the habit some time back — I think coincidentally I picked up just the right book at just the right time. I remember reading Winter Prey (1993) some years after it came out and being struck by the writing, plot, and characterization. In fact I was hooked like a trout and have gone back to read everything Sandford ever wrote, and I have half a bookcase filled with his first editions. Winter Prey is a puzzle mystery in the middle of a long string of serial killer novels, which is probably why it caught my attention, but Sandford knows what he’s doing and writes like a dream.

I’ve written elsewhere about my favourite Sandford novel, Bad Blood (2011), which is an entry in this author’s series about unconventional police officer Virgil Flowers. That one is still an amazing read and I still highly recommend it. I also go into some detail about Sandford and his various series, so if you’re interested, start with that review.

This volume is the tenth Virgil Flowers novel, and it’s another high-quality read. The story is about how Flowers is sent to a small town (Trippton, Minnesota) to investigate the murder of a bank president, pretty much the wealthiest woman in Trippton. Flowers has history in Trippton; a few years back (Deadline, 2014) he investigated a murder that ended up sending most of the local school board to jail for embezzlement and/or murder. The late Gina Hemming had an interesting sex life; she was about to divorce her husband, who apparently has taken to wearing nylons and calling himself Justine, and she has been seeing a beefy Harley-riding escort who sells sexual services under the guise of therapy. She’s also running Trippton’s financial scene with a firm hand and has offended a few locals.

It’s quite clear from the beginning of the book who killed Gina; this is a howcatchem, perhaps most often thought of as the province of Lieutenant Columbo, because we are introduced to the killer in the opening paragraphs and learn just how the deed was done. It’s how it was complicated later by witnesses and other parties that forms most of the basis of the book, and to Sandford’s credit this is also an interesting story.  You’ll feel sorry for the murderer, eventually, and somewhat less sorry for the victim.

John Sandford, Deep Freeze
There’s also an interesting secondary plot that should hold your interest; Flowers is saddled with an out-of-town private investigator who is investigating a local crime that will probably make you laugh. Someone has been opening up Barbie dolls — copyrighted, brand-protected Barbie dolls — and inserting a sound chip into them that makes them sound like they’re having an orgasm when you squeeze their stomach. The altered Barbies (“Barbie-O”) are sold as naughty novelties on various e-platforms and Mattel, the owner of the copyright, is sufficiently furious to send Margaret Griffin out from Los Angeles to put a stop to it.

Trouble is, the manufacture of Barbie-Os is the only thing between a few of the townspeople and starvation, and there’s a great deal of resistance to Griffin’s investigations. Flowers must become involved, although reluctantly since it seems to many people as though this is a victimless crime. His truck is firebombed and he takes a serious beating from a group of women who depend on the Barbie-O income. Eventually Flowers solves that case and stops the further manufacture of the Barbie-O. (I won’t tell you what the inventive product is that these folks come up with next, but it will make you laugh, I suspect, the next time your cell phone buzzes in silent mode.)

There’s a certain inevitability about this book; you know Flowers is going to solve the cases, you just don’t quite know how or when. Sandford is such a good writer that he carries you right along regardless of how much you think you know what’s going to happen. These stories are starting to attain the level of John D. MacDonald, and to me that’s high praise indeed. Sandford is a keen observer of human nature and … well, to me he just gets it. He writes exciting stories that have a healthy leavening of humour and excellent characterization … and these days each new volume is better than the last. Start with Dark of the Moon, the first Virgil Flowers novel from 2007, and keep going if you want to get hooked on a good series of books.

 

Death at Dyke’s Corner, by E. C. R. Lorac (1940)

UnknownWARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book,although the identity of the murderer and other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

11831756_10207661356081152_1492410585426506123_nWhat’s this book about?

Medical student Steven Langston and barrister Roland Straynge are driving through an exceptionally rainy night, returning to London after a Hunt Ball. When they are navigating a double hairpin turn, they are blinded by the lights of an oncoming lorry as they realize there is a motionless car immediately ahead that is standing in the worst possible place for it to be. With the help of exceptionally good driving by all concerned, the unavoidable crash is not very serious; Langston and Straynge and the lorry driver escape shaken but uninjured, but soon find a dead man at the wheel of the wrecked Daimler. Except that the late Morton Conyers was dead before the crash, and appears to have died from carbon monoxide inhalation.

The late Mr. Conyers is the principal of a very successful company called John Home & Co. — and it will save the modern reader time and effort to think of this company as equivalent to Walmart. When John Home sets up shop in a village, it sells everything and anything, and drives most local merchants out of business. Thus Conyers himself is the object of great hatred among the small businesspeople of the villages into which his company expands. The personal life of the deceased is also tumultuous; his elegant and long-suffering wife has managed to keep quiet about her husband’s many sexual infidelities among women of the lower classes, but her son Lewis has harboured a burning resentment for many years. When they learn of the death, there is a brief but  unusually frank exchange between mother and son. Lewis learns almost immediately that his late father’s valet, the ferret-like Strake, has been eavesdropping when Strake makes a crude attempt to blackmail Lewis; Lewis strikes him to the ground in fury and puts him in the hospital. The Conyers’ chauffeur is also resentful of his late employer and had recently given his notice; suspicion also falls on him since it seems as though the Daimler had been tampered with in order to generate a fatal dose of carbon monoxide.

1911_Daimler_Landaulette_crashedInspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called in and immediately begins to investigate not only the family but the economics of the local market town of Strode. From the local squire, Colonel Merryl (and his beautiful daughter Anne) they learn of the social context in which the Conyers family operates. Local opinion of Mr. Conyers is that he was an upstart tradesman and a dirty dog who would not be admitted to the social circles of the upper classes, despite his great wealth; most people felt a little sorry for the innocent Mrs. Conyers and her son, whom Anne describes as “a nicely behaved young man with a pleasant voice and an inferiority complex”), but they were regrettably tarred with the same brush as the father.

Opinions in the village are equally strong since it has been learned that Conyers planned to open a branch of John Home in the village. Macdonald interviews the local chemist, the butcher, and other smallholders in the ancient village; since it seems likely they were about to be driven out of business, they were of course resentful and angry. Opposition seems to be led by a nasty local moneylender, Shenton, who boasts that he has managed to acquire property such that Conyers’s plans to open in the Market Square would be frustrated; Shenton wants to keep many of the local businessmen under his extortionate thumb as he always has. But was Conyers out driving the evening of his death to make a secret cash deal with someone for a key piece of property? Some local businessmen were apparently resigned to progress … many were not. And none of the villagers were prepared to put up with Conyers’s buying of the favours of foolish young local women with presents of expensive jewelry.

Lacock_01As the investigation progresses, Macdonald realizes that local opinion is that Lewis Conyers murdered his father, but Lewis appears to have an alibi of sorts. Apparently he worships Anne Merryl from afar and, the night of the accident, was mooning about hoping to have a brief word with her at the Hunt Ball (from which the first-chapter drivers were returning, and at which Lewis would not have been welcome). The villagers, however, seem to think that the police are stalling on arresting Lewis, whom they believe is obviously guilty. Emotions in the village begin to run high and Lewis Conyers is attacked by an unknown party and seriously injured.

bourton5Macdonald has now got a pretty good idea of who committed the murder, based on some perceptive observations of tiny physical clues that will probably have escaped the reader. But emotions are running high and many of the villagers now seem to think the unpleasant Shenton is the guilty party. When one village suspect attempts to commit suicide, possibly prompted by Shenton’s apparent impersonation of a police officer, things come to a head. Shenton is taken into custody and is later released, swearing revenge upon the police; the villagers are agog and a little group of vigilantes goes to Shenton’s house to carry out some impromptu investigations in a threatening manner. But Shenton has a store of petrol that gets ignited. One of the little group of villagers dies horribly in the burning building and the fire threatens to spread to the entire village; all the villagers are running around madly rescuing their relations and their possessions. Meanwhile Macdonald is told that Shenton has escaped the fire and the police officer begins to track him through the village; there is an exceptionally tense finish as the two men are locked in a tiny room at the back of a shop as the fire races through the village. But Macdonald breaks free and arrests the murderer, whose identity will probably be a complete surprise to the reader. In the final chapter everything is explained to the local police and the Justice of the Peace — and of course the reader.

6129Why is this worth reading?

I’m starting to think that E. C. R. Lorac, aka Carol Carnac (pseudonyms for Edith Caroline Rivett, about whose personal life not much is known, and to whom I’ll refer here as ECR) is the Golden Age mystery writer who has been most unjustly neglected by the passage of time (although John Rhode/Miles Burton is a close second). Other writers have a few of their novels that have survived the years, and get the occasional reprint. For instance, one or two of Anthony Berkeley‘s tours de force like The Poisoned Chocolates Case continue to remain in print, and when a reader discovers this great book, s/he has a hint that tracking down other Berkeley titles will be worthwhile.

But ECR’s work suffers from two problems; one is that every single volume of her more than 70 titles is scarce, and thus difficult and expensive to obtain (barring a few very late works of no great excellence that you may find occasionally in a secondhand book store), and the other is that there is no single work that stands out and that has been cherished by critics as her finest work. They’re all good, but none of them seems to be great. (I like to call an author like this a first-rate second-rate writer. Not famous, but a really satisfying writer of good books.) ECR’s scarcity and relative obscurity has resulted in many aficionados of the Golden Age of Detection missing out on some very fine mysteries, and I for one would love to see that change. In the meantime, every copy available is frequently snapped up by a collector who cherishes it. And some are so rare that it is speculated that fewer than ten copies exist.

019This particular volume is satisfying and delightful, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a damn good mystery. The solution is intelligent and surprising and you will have the uncommon experience at the end of thinking, “Oh, I should have seen THAT!” ECR does an excellent job of balancing at least two major plot trails, those of the victim’s family and those of his economic victims. It’s rare that a reader enters Act III of a typical mystery without having eliminated at least one major plot trail — here, everything is in play.  Unless you are paying an exceptional amount of attention, you will be fooled; I freely confess I was, and I enjoyed that experience.

The characterization is excellent. Other volumes of ECR I’ve read tend to focus on the upper classes and merely sketch in the “servants and villagers” who provide information to the plot but nothing really important to the novel. Here, we’re dealing with real people. The shopkeepers are quirky and realistic. ECR has done a good job here on making morally unsound characters like the valet and the moneylender three-dimensional and not merely cardboard characters who kick the occasional puppy to demonstrate their complete wickedness.

The flow of this novel is first-rate. ECR’s works occasionally suffer from their slow deliberate pace (as I noticed in my look at another ECR volume, Still Waters, where virtually nothing actually happens in the action of the novel). This volume starts with excitement, lets you get interested in the victim’s family issues, then switches to the larger viewpoint of the village resisting change and starts to build a double line of tension. And I suspect few ECR stories build to such an exciting climax as a manhunt through a burning village that finishes up in the near-death of the detective and the principal suspect and then a final surprise twist in the ending. This novel is really well constructed and built.

The writing, as usual, is excellent. ECR has a good touch with dialogue that displays character; people speak in the way that reveals who they are, but it feels more natural than cliched. And the author’s love of the countryside is apparent here. There are no long rambles through farmland and countryside, as sometimes happens in her novels to slow things down for a moment while she gives you the feel of the land; this is because, as seems to be a bit unusual for ECR, nobody in this book is motivated by their love of the land and thus there is no occasion for anyone to get all lyrical about it. But there’s enough here that we can see the little maze of twisted streets and Tudor-era shops and outbuildings that make up this so-typical ancient village — and we understand what’s going on when Macdonald is racing through its streets and alleys after his suspect.

I have to say that the part I most enjoyed here, though, was what I think of as social context. That’s one of the reasons that Golden Age mysteries are so interesting to me — the chance to find out about a way of life that was commonplace not too many years before I was born, but has its bases and mores rooted in systems of social class and interaction that are completely foreign to the modern day. It is not often done as well here as ECR provides, mostly because many Golden Age writers are standing in a position of agreeing, pretty much, with the upper classes. In this volume we find out how people feel about the potential destruction of the traditional village way of life by the encroachment of modern methods of trade and commerce. This means that the villagers will have access to stylish clothing and a wider range of food and entertainment, to the great dismay of the upper classes who think such things are vulgar and unsuitable for their inferiors. They will also be able to have jobs working in stores rather than being destined for domestic service and work on the land.

The thing that I thought was really delightful about this book’s approach to the social context was made plain by the squire’s daughter, Anne Merryl. When her father begins to whinge about how vulgar and unsuitable it is that the village will be “spoiled” by the economic development inherent in the building of a John Home store in the village, she refutes him. She speaks of her desire to do something useful and earn money by perhaps working at the store as a beauty consultant or a fashion advisor — to the horror of her parents. But she compounds that horror. When her parents remonstrate with her for buying a delicious cake from a not-too-distant John Home store, since it takes business away from local tradespeople, she faces up to them. “If our own tradespeople would sell cakes like this, I wouldn’t go to John Home’s. In Laing’s Baker in Strand you can buy three cakes. One is rich fruit. Awful. One is seed cake. Awfuller. One is Maderia. [sic] Awfullest. Then there are little sponge cakes with pink, green or white icing. I’ve eaten them since I was three.  I never want to see them again.” Her parents remind her that the local tradespeople will be squeezed out — “decent folk with a tradition all their own, all pushed out to make room for John Home”. Anne angrily reminds them of the improved social conditions for staff in the John Home stores as opposed to being bullied by the local tradespeople in the old-fashioned way, and speaks forcefully about “Manton the butcher — another horror. Look at his shop in summer. Flies all over the meat and no cold storage.” Another character remarks about “The small trader, owning his own shop, was a monopolist, and he has underpaid his employees and exploited the necessities of the country folk who had to buy their goods at his shop or go without. Independence has often been used as a cloak to inefficiency, and unwillingness to oblige, and economic unsoundness.”

Now, this is something you just don’t see in many works of Golden Age detective fiction. Bucolic “Mrs. Bumble who runs the village shop” is generally portrayed as merely the centre of gossip and the occasional bit of background information about potential suspects — but the unspoken assumption is generally that her store has everything the locals need at fair prices. (Think about why Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel needs to travel to London to visit the Army and Navy Stores.) ECR has put her finger on the oncoming wave of progress that will shortly sweep away this antiquated lifestyle, but the really interesting part to me is that ECR is saying the villagers themselves knew it was coming and didn’t know how to deal with it. There’s a recent thriller by the excellent John Sandford (Shock Wave) that addresses the same issues, when a thinly disguised version of Walmart is moving into a small Minnesota town, and honestly, there’s not much difference between the two sets of reactions. But many Golden Age mysteries merely sketch in this issue by having the local squire bemoan the advent of progress, or Lady Poobah remark that it’s SO hard to get housemaids these days. ECR gives us both sides of the coin and it’s both fascinating and surprising.  It’s also rather sobering to think that when the village burns down at the end, it will merely make it more likely that John Home will clear the burned sites and build a modern store immediately.

To sum up — good writing, good plotting, great social context, interesting characterization, and a clever and difficult mystery. They don’t write ’em like that any more, and for the life of me I can’t think of why we can’t get our hands on these.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada nn#30 — this is “unnumbered #30” from the first year of this company’s publications, 1942. Another way of describing this, based on internal evidence bound into the book, is “C1”. (I can’t confirm this because my copy is, paradoxically, too tight to show this identifier. But I accept this assertion because it’s shared by a number of knowledgeable individuals.) An experienced dealer in Collins White Circle Canada cites it as “Very rare” and suggests that 20 to 50 copies are estimated to still exist. My copy (not the one depicted here), in reasonable condition (VG) with a good binding, is missing a small piece of the spine at the bottom (essentially the word “Lorac”). I think it might bring $60 to $70 at auction but, believe me, it’s not leaving my hands; it’s irreplaceable. This is the only paperback edition (no, it’s not, see below); as of today, there are no copies of the first edition available on AbeBooks. Similar first editions are trading at a base level of $500 US! So this is my favourite edition mostly because it’s the only one I’ve ever seen or I’m ever likely to see.

(Later the same day as this review was published, I learned that there is a Crime Club paperback of this novel; it’s still scarce, just not AS scarce as I’d thought. My thanks to my Facebook friend and fellow GAD aficionado Louise Davis who generously provided the information and a photograph of a book from her collection — second picture from the top.)

Bad Blood (2011)

Bad Blood

9023326-largeAuthor: John Sandford, the major pseudonym of John Camp.

Publication Data:  First edition as shown September, 2010 in hardcover; 2011 Berkley mass-market paperback, etc.

About this book:

It may come as a surprise to my readers that I am a big ol’ John Sandford fan. Generally, my reading list is composed of puzzle mysteries written before 1960. But I’ll always make an exception for a good writer, and Sandford is a good writer.  I’ve collected him ever since I discovered him, very close to the beginning of his fiction career, and I’ve recommended him ever since to my friends who like modern thrillers.

And this is his best book EVER.

His career started in 1989 with Rules of Prey, the first of what are currently 23 novels featuring Lucas Davenport and containing the word “Prey” in the title.  (Another novel of his in the “Kidd” series also came out in 1989 under his real name, John Camp, but this series was less well received and the books were later reissued as by “Sandford”.) At first the Prey series were fairly standard serial-killer novels, well written and constructed, and with only a faint spark of the excellent writing to come.  But people liked the Lucas Davenport character, the series took off, and a novel followed just about on a yearly basis ever after.  Davenport solved crimes, slept with beautiful women, and rose in the ranks of the Minnesotan police services. His personal life became more complicated and he finally settled down with a surgeon named Weather, adopted a kid, had a kid, etc. A fairly standard course of development for your typical muscular protagonist. All 23 are worth your attention.

In 2007, though, Sandford started another series featuring rural cop Virgil Flowers or, as he is known to many in Minnesota, “that fuckin’ Flowers”.  Flowers is a cop known for his collection of T-shirts featuring musicians, his three (or four?) marriages, his many women friends, and his other career as a free-lance writer of hunting and fishing articles. But he’s also a dogged investigator with a great deal of intelligence about the way people think and what makes them act the way they do, which makes his investigations interesting and believable.

This book begins with the murder of a hard-working farmer by a teenager who works at a grain facility. Although the teenager has tried to make it look like an accident, he’s soon detected and arrested. Then it’s announced that he’s committed suicide in the cells. When the medical examiner says it wasn’t suicide, but murder, Flowers is assigned to the case, and settles in to work with the local sheriff, an attractive single woman about his age.

As the book progresses, we learn that the crimes have to do with the activities of a rural religious sect known as the “World of Spirit”.  And this religious sect is concealing a secret that is so volatile and illegal that, by the end of Flowers’ investigation, a dozen people are dead, others have walked away from their lives and vanished, many farmhouses have been burned to the ground, and the local jail is so overloaded that they have to access all the cells from neighbouring towns.  And the local sheriff is about to become so famous that there will soon be a reality TV show about her everyday life.

I won’t go into the details — this book certainly deserves to be read and enjoyed without knowing too much about it, because the reader is surely going to enjoy it. But the great thing is that this book builds and builds and BUILDS to a climax that is so huge and exciting, and lasts so long, that you will not be able to put the book down past the halfway point. It’s that good.

One problem with thrillers is that they have to be tightly plotted and build to a big climax; what I frequently find is that a slender book builds to a huge climax, or a book full of ill omen and portent builds to a sputtering inadequate climax. Sometimes the plot escalates because of a plot point that isn’t organically related to the book, and that makes the book bathetic or merely hard to believe. It is really, really difficult to create a plot structure that keeps the reader interested all the way, that builds properly from little to big events, little to big action, where the main character learns things about the plot in a way that seems reasonable to the reader all the way through, and which serve as the platform for organic plot developments.

It’s also difficult to create realistic characters to act out all these plot twists. What is most difficult, to my mind, is to create realistic villains and/or antagonists. They’re either too crazy (a fault to which Sandford occasionally succumbed early on) or too randomly motivated, or not motivated at all, or motivated by things that don’t ring true to the reader. Sometimes they’re way too evil, and sometimes they’re not evil enough. Sometimes they are far too stupid, and do stupid things to give the protagonist a slam-dunk solution that makes him look clever.  Sometimes they are far too smart and it becomes obvious that no human could ever catch this person. It’s a delicate balancing act to get the characters juuuuuust right.

And that’s why I think this is Sandford’s best book. He balances everything perfectly. Yes, it is a terrifically exciting and high-action finish; the thing is, though, that it’s all put together in a believable way. These people would do the things that Sandford has them doing, and for the reasons that he gives us. That is so rare that in itself it’s worthy of comment. But when you have also a plot that is nail-chewingly exciting, and thrilling, and twisty, and unexpected, and occasionally even funny — you have a wonderful book.

The quality of the writing itself is very high. Sandford has the knack for muscular prose — prose that reflects the way a man looks at the world and descriptions of things that are phrased as a man would describe them. I expect some people will be turned off by this immediately because they’ve had a bad experience with macho doofuses on the level of Tom Clancy or the execrable Robert Parker.  Parker’s hero Spenser does everything except chew crowbars and spit staples. But Sandford has the extremely rare knack of writing good muscular prose that is of interest to anyone. Personally, I tend to dislike macho men in real life mostly because I come into conflict with them so often, for various reasons. But I actually think I would be capable of getting along with Lucas Davenport, and I would be proud to buy Virgil Flowers a beer, mostly because I perceive that while they are indubitably macho, they are absolutely not assholes. That is rare characterization indeed.

If I were recommending that someone start reading Sandford, I’d suggest Dark of the Moon, the first Virgil Flowers novel. Yes, all the Lucas Davenport novels are in paperback, and yes, they are all worth reading. But Virgil Flowers will hook you hard, and then you’ll go on and enjoy them all, whereas the early Davenport books are iffy.

Notes For the Collector:

Abebooks.com offers a first edition of this novel, signed, for $25-$50. (There is a really interesting edition signed by both Sandford and the gentleman who is cited in the dedication for $100, and that would absolutely be worth having.) You can get a fine but unsigned first edition from Abe for $25, and since the first edition sold for US$27.95, I think this is a bargain. The prices for other editions, including first paper, are what I think of as “normal”.

It is always my contention that a well-written book will hold its value, if not continue to gain, and I firmly believe that Sandford novels will continue to appreciate. I really never stop myself from buying Sandford firsts when I see them at used bookstores for a reasonable price, even if I have two or three copies of the same book already. This book in particular is just so damn good that I wish I had a dozen laid down.