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Bloody Genius by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on October 1, 2019

Virgil Flowers novels tend to be a bit lighter than their companion Lucas Davenport novels, but neither series is crushingly heavy. Bloody Genius, like all of John Sanford’s novels, tells a fun story featuring likeable characters who trade barbs while laboring to solve a crime. Apart from following a successful formula, Bloody Genius offers one of the most engaging mysteries that Sanford has created. For that reason, I would rank it as one of the best of Sanford’s Virgil Flowers novels.

A professor sneaks a woman into a library at midnight, where he comes upon someone in his cubicle. The professor is clobbered on the head with his own laptop and the woman, who sees little and avoids being seen, decides that discretion is the better part of being a witness. For much of the novel, the police do not know who she is and are not even certain that anyone was in the library except the professor and his killer.

Since the professor has powerful friends with political connections, Virgil Flowers is dispatched to Minneapolis to assist the local homicide detectives, who have nothing. Flowers is careful not to step on the toes of the lead investigator, Margaret Trane. She overcomes her initial animosity toward Flowers, in part because Flowers is charming and funny and in part because he clearly isn’t trying to steal her thunder.

The reader knows more about the murder than the police, although the reader doesn’t know why the professor was killed or the identity of either the killer or the disappearing woman. Forearmed with that knowledge, the reader can enjoy Flowers’ investigatory missteps as he pursues theories that ultimately don’t fit how the murder occurred. The suicide (or murder) of another character and a mugging that might have been an attempted murder may or may not be related.

With all of those plot threads, the reader is never quite sure whether each new fact is a red herring or a clue. Did the murder have something to do with an academic dustup between the professor, who considered himself to be a real scientist, and members of the Cultural Affairs department, who the professor derided as useless? Did the cocaine in the professor’s desk tie into a motivation for murder? Why is a recorded conversation about a mysterious “experiment” hidden on a country-western CD in the professor’s sound system? Did the killing have anything to do with a malpractice lawsuit against the professor? Do seemingly unrelated crimes, including the theft of rare maps, furnish clues to the murder?

Sandford spins the plot elements with the skill of a master juggler. The eventual solution to the professor’s murder is clever. The crime is also one that an astute reader with esoteric knowledge that I lack might be able to solve. On top of a winning plot, Sandford ends the novel with a nice action scene and packs the story with his usual irreverent and profanity-laden dialog. I loved all of it, although readers who can’t abide the F-word (or the word pussy when it isn’t followed by the word cat), will want to steer clear of Bloody Genius. In my view, the naughty words just add to the fun.


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