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.

 

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.