The Trail Never Goes Cold
Keeping a series fresh and relevant through a dozen or more entries is a task that has bedeviled more than one thriller writer. After publishing 23 novels in 18 years, John Sandford has risen to the heights of his profession, with his books selling millions of copies. Such success often breeds complacency. As writers such as Robert B. Parker and Patricia Cornwell have shown, even the most popular series can spoil as quickly as dead fish when their creators get sloppy, lazy or just apathetic.
Through 17 "Prey" novels featuring Lucas Davenport, a Minneapolis police detective, Sandford has been better than most at keeping his hero at the top of his game. Although it's true that many of his books in recent years have paled in comparison to the robust stories that began the series, Sandford's work always has remained respectable. Now, after taking a year off from Davenport -- indeed, perhaps because of it -- Sandford has returned with one of his best books in recent memory. "Invisible Prey" is a contemplative, intelligent suspense novel that shows the author in fine form.
The story opens with the murder of a wealthy society woman and her maid. Naturally, the politically sensitive governor assigns his top investigator to handle the case. Davenport is as good a sleuth as there is, but even he has a hard time cracking this one. With no evidence and no apparent motive, the perpetrators might just get away with it. But if you've read any of the 16 previous books in this series, you can take a pretty good guess at what's going to happen in the end. Like the Mounties, Davenport always gets his man.
Along with the murder investigation, Sandford throws in a salacious subplot about a powerful Republican state senator who has been accused of having an affair with an underage girl. (The politician claims he was sleeping only with the teenager's mother.) The way this case plays out is curious: Sandford uses the scheming Lolita and her trailer-trash mom for comedy, but we're left wondering if we really should be amused by an accusation of statutory rape.
Of course, the plots aren't what primarily draw us to a series like this. The scenarios exist mainly as justification for putting Lucas Davenport into action. He is what keeps readers coming back year after year. Davenport is never believable -- he's too rich, too handsome, too smart, too trigger-happy to be real -- but he's always intriguing, and his exploits are a large part of why the books have maintained their popularity.
Davenport has changed as the books have piled up. The rough-hewn detective who started out as violent, moody and rapacious has softened as he's gotten older and wealthier. (In addition to being a cop, he's a successful software entrepreneur.) Davenport will still rough up a suspect when necessary, still shoot a bad guy if the situation demands it, but on balance he's calmer and happier than before. Inevitably, he's also somewhat less interesting as a result. But his maturation has made him more human and realistic, which adds greater emotional resonance to his character.
Sandford has kept the "Prey" series fresh for so long by varying his storytelling. Sometimes the books are pure thriller, with an emphasis on high-octane action and suspense. Other times the stories are structured as mysteries, with more attention paid to details and deduction. "Invisible Prey" is a little bit of both, a police procedural that focuses on the investigation of the crime, while simultaneously taking readers into the criminals' minds and methods. It's not his most suspenseful story, but it is intellectually stimulating.
Sandford, the pen name for Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Camp, writes like the former reporter he is, bringing to his books a keen sense of observation and a gift for finding the hook in a story. It's no surprise that several of today's top crime writers, including Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman and Robert Ferrigno, made the jump from journalism to the bestseller lists. Understanding human nature and writing about it compellingly are just two of the skills the professions demand. While it's unlikely that Sandford's newspaper work was ever quite as entertaining as "Invisible Prey," it's clear that he learned his trade well.
From the Washington Post, May 10, 2007