A review of Mad River, by John Sandford
@@@ (3 out of 5)
Virgil Flowers is not my kind of guy.
For starters, Virgil is a “pistol-packing, shit-kicking” type who drives a pickup and loves fishing, hunting, and arguing in bars about the best country singer of all time. The son of a conservative Lutheran pastor in rural Minnesota who still goes to church with his parents from time to time, he’s been divorced three times. He is also about six-one, blond, and thin, so if you know me you know I hate him. On the other hand, he’s an accomplished nonfiction writer who has been published in The New York Times Magazine and is now about to sign a contract for a major piece with Vanity Fair.
Oh, and by the way, Virgil is also an agent for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) who has piled up so impressive a record on high-profile cases that he has the governor on speed-dial – and he is the protagonist of a series of crime novels set in the upper Midwest by the pseudonymous John Sandford, who was an award-winning journalist in another life and under a different name.
In Mad River, Virgil has no sooner returned from a vacation in, of all places, the Bahamas when his boss, Lucas Davenport, assigns him to follow up on a brutal and seemingly senseless murder in a small rural town near Virgil’s home base in Mankato. One murder has turned into two by the time Virgil arrives in Bigham, the site of the first murder, and two more are discovered before Virgil and the disreputable local Sheriff can puzzle out what happened the first time around. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that a couple of local young people, or maybe three of them, have gone on a killing spree. Mad River tells the unfolding tale of Virgil’s, and the Sheriff’s, rush to get to the killers first—Virgil, to take them in for prosecution, the Sheriff, to kill them on the spot.
This latest best-selling work from John Sandford – number six in the Virgil Flowers series – bears all the characteristics of the author’s trademark mastery of suspense. The story unfolds unpredictably, and, for a change, even ends in surprise. Nonetheless, I think Sandford (or his editor) may have been asleep at the wheel on this one. With only a few exceptions, every character in this novel, major or minor, is described as “thin” – not “skinny,” “slender,” “rail-thin,” “emaciated,” “skeletal,” “reedy,” or “light-weight,” but simply “thin.” To my mind, this seems an abuse of the writer’s spare, colloquial style, and as an editor by nature I find it offensive. Anyway, do Minnesotans really eat that little?
All told, Sandford has written 34 novels, including 22 in his “Prey” series, in which Lucas Davenport of the BCA is the central character and Virgil Flowers is usually in the supporting cast. In this blog I’ve previously reviewed Phantom Prey, Storm Prey, and Stolen Prey in the Davenport series and Shock Wave featuring Flowers.