Phantom Prey, by John Sandford
2009, 438 pp.
Though it may be difficult to believe, and though it may provoke outrage and offense among the general readership, it must be stated without equivocation that the present author has at times been accused of elitism. It is all lies and slander, I know, but I daresay it startled me entirely out of Sordello's 1237 lament in the Occitan sirventes-planh style over the death of his patron Blacatz (so effectively parodied, of course, in Canto VII of the Purgatorio) and left me with no recourse but a response. I offer it here.
I love detective novels. I admit it freely, without reservation or embarassment. Donald E. Westlake remains one of my favorite writers, especially in his Richard Stark pseudonym (he had something like thirteen pseudonymns and wrote about a hundred books) and I judge all dialogue by the formidable standard of Elmore Leonard. John Sandford (which is a pseudonym for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Camp...you see how deep the rabbit-hole goes) has always been a favorite. I've read approximately twelve of his "Prey" novels, which feature a Minneapolis detective named Lucas Davenport. Unhelpfully, all are titled "(Adjective) Prey," and the adjective never gives any indication what exactly the book is about, so I have a devil of a time remembering if Winter Prey was the one about the Native American terrorists or the guy who hides in the water tower, or if Secret Prey was about the female assassin or the one with the Russians. Maybe the one with the female assassin had Russians in it? I have no idea.
At any rate, I love these books. Davenport starts out as an obligatory maverick detective in the first few, with a lot of money from a computer software company he founded and a Porsche and good fashion sense and a hot reporter girlfriend and depression and a good ability to kill bad guys. Over time he ends up as the deputy police chief and then the governor's troubleshooter cop, and now works for the stupidly-named (but apparently real) Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He's caught like a dozen serial killers by now and probably shot like a hundred people and been shot about seven times and now is married to a hot surgeon who is inexplicably named "Weather." His friends and colleagues are all well-drawn and well developed by now (this is the 18th book in the series) and I've read so many that they fit like a comfortable pair of socks. Sandford rarely fails to deliver what you want: the plots are suspenseful, the villians evil and devious, the murders satisfyingly grisly, the sex happily explicit and frequent, and there's an action scene at the end. I made a note early on: "Pg. 15--two murders, lots of nipples." I bought Phantom Prey at the airport in Singapore before a flight to Tokyo and finished it in one sitting before we passed Taiwan.
Unfortunately, this is not a particularly good entry in the series. The plot concerns the disappearance of a rich girl who seems to have been a Goth and whose Goth acquaintances soon start dying. There is a rocky start as Sanford tries to build suspense by giving the reader a lot of sentences without verbs ("Something wrong here") instead of using the perfectly effective free-indirect style. Things pick up when Sanford gets into the nuts-and-bolts of police procedural, at which he is exceptionally skilled. The dialogue is solid, and there are some good lines: "the smell of the old cigarette butts closed in around them," or "the coffee had never seen Seattle, or even heard of it." Here's a good example of the kind of thing he does:
"Back out into the skyways, getting-out-of-the-office time, crowds jostling though to the parking ramps, a few of the younger women showing some pre-spring skin, the teen guys flashing tattoos over health-club muscles, their elders often with the competitive, fixed, dead-eyed, and querulous stare of people who were not getting far enough, fast enough, making enough, hustling all the time, working all the time, no time for an evening's paseo, no time even for half-fast food. Scuttling people."
The trouble is that about halfway through it becomes clear that he hasn't been playing fair. He nearly almost uses My Least Favorite Plot Twist Ever, in which it turns out that several people, including the killer, are in fact one person's alternate personalities. This is particularly infuriating because I like Sanford exactly due to his avoidance of these sorts of games. His suspense is always genuine, never authorial tricks, and his villains are never Hollywood stereotypes. His policework is always spot-on and believable, and he usually seems to respect the reader enough to be honest and put in some effort to plotting and research. Not so much here. Whether he is running out of steam this late in the series or was under a contractual obligation or domestic pressure I do not know, but Phantom Prey is ultimately a disappointment, even as an airplane read. Even the ending action sequence comes as the resolution of an entirely unnecessary subplot: a subplot which seemed to exist solely to provide some occasional nudity and the climactic action. The writing is skillful enough, and Sanford knows his characters and his subject well enough to be in complete control, but he demonstrates his skill far better elsewhere. I suspect I will remember which Prey this one is, but not for good reasons.