The Tzer Island book blog features book reviews written by TChris, the blog's founder.  I hope the blog will help readers discover good books and avoid bad books.  I am a reader, not a book publicist.  This blog does not exist to promote particular books, authors, or publishers.  I therefore do not participate in "virtual book tours" or conduct author interviews.  You will find no contests or giveaways here.

The blog's nonexclusive focus is on literary/mainstream fiction, thriller/crime/spy novels, and science fiction.  While the reviews cover books old and new, in and out of print, the blog does try to direct attention to books that have been recently published.  Reviews of new (or newly reprinted) books generally appear every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Reviews of older books appear on occasional weekends.  Readers are invited and encouraged to comment.  See About Tzer Island for more information about this blog, its categorization of reviews, and its rating system.

Entries in John Sandford (8)

Wednesday
Oct022019

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.

RECOMMENDED

Wednesday
Apr242019

Neon Prey by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 23, 2019

Neon Prey is the kind of book that John Sandford can write on auto-pilot and still entertain. The novel is filled with chase scenes and shootouts and banter. The plot has no substance to speak of, unless you count chase scenes and shootouts as a substantive plot, but Sandford does action scenes so well that the reader needs nothing more. At this point, Prey novels are just an excuse to check in with familiar characters to see how their lives are going. Suffice it to say that their lives are exciting.

Sandford’s Prey novels are light with patches of darkness. Neon Prey (Neon because much of the action is in Vegas) might be darker than most, simply because a fair number of characters (innocent and guilty alike) die, and characters who don’t die take a bullet. Even darker is the cannibal. Yes, there’s a cannibal and yes, that's been done before, in both fiction and the real world.

Lucas Davenport and Marshal buddies Bob and Rae are joined by an FBI agent who resembles a young Davenport, much to Rae’s delight. The plot involves a killer named Deese who is arrested after beating a man who refused to pay his debt to a loan shark. Deese is charged with furthering a racketeering conspiracy and is released on bail. Getting bail on a federal violent crime isn’t easy, but the judge gets a piece of the action so everyone’s happy. Everyone except Deese’s victims, because Deese is the aforementioned cannibal.

Deese cuts off his monitoring device in Louisiana. Federal Marshals Rae Givens and Bob Matees are searching Deese’s property when they find a bunch of buried bodies. The number and condition of the bodies and the contents of Deese’s grill are, to say the least, disturbing. Bob and Rae ask Lucas to use his clout to get the Marshals assigned to find Deese because they know the FBI isn’t good at finding people. For that matter, they don’t think FBI agents are good at anything.

From there, the story involves tracking Deese, who hooks up with a home invader and a young woman who is along for the ride (and the drugs). Deese and his accomplices go on a crime spree, staying a step ahead of the Marshals and FBI for much of the novel, but keeping them busy with shootouts and rising body counts and some clever schemes to avoid being captured.

The Prey stories are darkly amusing because of Davenport’s nonchalant joking with Bob and Rae in the face of mayhem. After 29 Prey novels, readers know what to expect, and Neon Prey is exactly what a series fan expects to read. There’s nothing new or different here, but the action, dialog, and skillful storytelling are enough to sweep the reader along, as they always are in a Sandford novel.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Oct082018

Holy Ghost by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on October 9, 2018

The Virgin Mary’s appearances at a small church in Wheatfield, Minnesota have revitalized a dying Rust Belt town. Quick to take advantage of the miracle are J.J. Skinner and Wardell Holland, the two men who orchestrated it with the help of Janet Fischer.

Taking advantage of the gullible is a time-honored way of making money and, in this instance, would have been relatively harmless had it not inspired a sniper to begin wounding townspeople and tourists who venture near the church. At least, the working theory connects the shootings (and perhaps subsequent murders) to the Virgin’s appearances.

Virgil Flowers is dispatched to Wheatfield to help the locals find the shooter. His investigation proceeds in Virgil’s usual ambling way as he chats and jokes with townsfolk while appreciating the local women and keeping an eye out for clues. He’s eventually joined by regular series characters, including BCI investigators Jenkins and Shrake, creating the opportunity for the kind of banter at which John Sandford excels.

Virgil’s investigation is complicated by the fact that no witnesses hear shots fired, nobody sees a shooter, and nobody is sure of the direction from which the shots came. Nor can anyone explain why all the shots that nobody heard were fired at the same time of day. The whodunit and “how was it done?” storylines are well executed, but it is the likeable characters that keep readers coming back to Sandford.

In addition to his regular characters, Sandford has fun with Skinner and Holland, who might not be entirely honest but have good hearts. He populates Wheatfield with a number of colorful characters. Virgil’s interviews with crime suspects and witnesses are always amusing, as is Virgil. I like his realistic view of law enforcement officers (a third are pretty good, a third are “just getting through life,” and a third are “poorly trained or burned out, not too bright, have problems handling their authority”). I wish more real cops were like the fictional Virgil.

Holy Ghost speculates about the connection between religion and violence and pokes gentle fun at paranoid survivalist gun nuts. That will turn off some readers, but readers who are looking for an excuse to become outraged have objected to Sandford novels in the past because characters held political positions with which the readers disagreed. Judging from Amazon reviews, some readers object to Sandford novels because his characters interact with Democrats without regarding them as demons.  Sandford adds a couple of ineffective Minnesota Nazis to the cast of this novel, perhaps to appease a segment of the reading community that should probably stick with Mitch Rapp novels.

There’s nothing politically correct about Virgil, but he doesn’t see it as his duty to offend people for the sake of exercising his right to be obnoxious. Open-minded readers will appreciate Virgil’s open mind and his willingness to engage the world in a sensible but light-hearted manner as he goes about his business of investigating and stopping crime. Holy Ghost is another in a long string of Sandford novels that are just plain fun to read.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Apr302018

Twisted Prey by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 24, 2018

Twisted Prey would earn my recommendation just for this sentence: “Survivalists fantasize about SHTF day, when Shit Hits The Fan — Mexico invades Arizona, the gasoline runs out, all the chickens get eaten, and anybody who doesn’t have a root cellar in the backyard fully stocked with AR-15s, camouflage hats, hunting bows, and gold coins is doomed to a life of sexual slavery or death by cannibalism.” Like, totally. Fortunately, I don’t have to rely on a single sentence to recommend the latest Lucas Davenport novel, because the rest of the book is nearly as entertaining.

A senator’s SUV is sideswiped on a gravel mountain road, forcing the SUV over the edge and into a tree. The crash kills Senator Smalls’ lover. Smalls is sure that the accident was deliberate, but accident investigators tell him that there is no sign of a second vehicle’s involvement. The senator is from Minnesota, so he naturally calls Lucas Davenport for a second opinion.

Lucas is a U.S. Marshal these days, but his boss regularly lends him to politicians who need a criminal investigator because keeping politicians happy is good for the Marshal Service’s budget. Smalls believes Minnesota’s other senator, Taryn Grant, was behind the assassination attempt. He needs Lucas to prove that a crime was committed and to find out who committed it. Lucas obligingly heads to Washington and appropriately checks into the Watergate Hotel.

Lucas’ investigation leads him to a business that deals with military procurement contracts and to a number of shady characters connected directly or indirectly to that business and less provably to Grant. When a target of the investigation is murdered, Lucas has to deal with the victim’s brother (a lieutenant colonel) and lover (a CIA assassin), both of whom have been led to believe that the target was killed by Lucas.

As that story gets rolling, Lucas is distracted when his wife Weather gets into a car accident — or was it? His Marshal friends Bob and Rae join the investigation as Lucas tries to get to the bottom of the assassination attempt and a series of killings that are apparently related. He even finds himself working with the FBI, which gives John Sandford a chance to make fun of humorless, career-minded FBI agents. While the FBI is an natural target for Sandford’s humor, he also pokes fun at DHS, whose agents, for the sake of job security, pretend every crime they investigate is an act of terrorism.

Sandford often works a political environment into his stories, but he’s evenhanded about making both Republicans and Democrats the bad guys. (In this novel, a Democrat is the villain.) None of it is mean-spirited, but Sandford does have a clear-eyed view of the nation’s political environment. At one point, Lucas laments the impossibility of reading anything on the internet (including comments left on a website that gives home construction tips) that doesn’t quickly descend into caustic name calling by people on both the right and the left. “I mean, why?” he asks. “Is there a difference between a right-wing and a left-wing two-by-four?” That’s another sentence that makes the novel worth reading.

Politics aside, Lucas is more humane than most thriller characters. He’s a tough guy, but unlike most protagonists in tough guy novels, he doesn’t feel the need to let the world know how tough he is or how much he loves his guns. He’s secure, he’s self-deprecating, and he thinks of villains as people; he has no use for ideologues who dispense death casually.

The plot holds together plausibly, a rarity in modern thrillers. The ending might be predictable but it’s satisfying. In fact, the entire novel is satisfying as another example of Sandford’s reliable ability to tell a fast-moving story about down-to-Earth characters who are competent without being full of themselves.

RECOMMENDED

Monday
Oct022017

Deep Freeze by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on October 17, 2017

David Birkmann starts Deep Freeze by killing a woman he was hoping to seduce. The killing is unplanned, not quite an accident but certainly not premeditated. After arranging the body to make the death appear to have been accidental, Dave the Bug Boy (exterminator by trade) bugs out. But why does the dead woman’s body turn up in the water by the sewage treatment plant?

Virgil Flowers’ latest mystery involves small town secrets, and there are a lot of those in Deep Freeze. Some involve affairs, some involve adventurous sex, some involve rivalries and jealousies. Of course, nothing is really a secret in a small Minnesota town that craves gossip.

A subplot involves Barbie and Ken dolls that have been modified in ways that … well, let’s just say that Mattel doesn’t like it. That’s a fun diversion from the main story, although the subplot raises serious questions about whether law enforcement agencies (at the bidding of politicians) should use their scarce resources to help corporations with civil matters like copyright infringement. Virgil doesn’t dwell on the issue, but he’s clearly annoyed to have his murder investigation interrupted by an investigation of people who really aren’t harming anyone (unless you count Barbie’s reputation).

The plot hustles along as Virgil interviews one town resident after another, matching stories, discarding theories, trying to figure out who is telling the truth and whether their lies relate to the murder. A couple of brawls enliven the story, but this is more a police procedural, a detective at work, than anything else. It isn’t a whodunit (we know whodunit from the opening pages) and the mystery of the displaced body gets solved well before the ending, so Deep Freeze is less a novel of suspense than an entertaining slice of Virgil Flowers’ life. To be fair, there are some tense moments at the end, but this isn’t an action novel. Since Virgil is an entertaining character who surrounds himself with entertaining characters, I’m fine with the story’s low-key nature.

I love John Sandford’s deadly accurate portrayal of small town politics, including the sheriff who doesn’t want to investigate anyone if the investigation might irritate influential people or cost him votes. I also love the friendly insults that characters exchange. Sandford’s novels are worth reading for the banter, apart from the plots. Readers searching for a traditional mystery will need to search elsewhere, but Sandford fans who want to spend time with an old friend will find little to complain about in Deep Freeze.

RECOMMENDED