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 Sundays.  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 (5)


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.



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.



Golden Prey by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 25, 2017

Lucas Davenport is adapting to his new gig as a deputy marshal. He doesn’t do the usual boring work that keeps deputy marshals busy — prisoner transport, courthouse security — and his ability to avoid mundane duties causes almost as much resentment as the fact that he drives a Porsche. Even his boss, the marshal in his district, resents Lucas because Lucas doesn’t answer to the marshal. He does help chase the occasional fugitive, but mostly he wants to make his own assignments. He managed this gig because he saved the life of a presidential candidate in the last Prey novel, a fact that apparently disturbed readers of an irrational political persuasion.

The first big job Davenport assigns himself is to track down Gavin Poole, an old-fashioned robber who goes after banks and armored cars and mail trucks. Poole has a lethal girlfriend named Pandora Box (Dora for short). The reader spends some of the novel following Poole and his associates.

Poole recently ripped off a major drug dealer from Honduras, which was not a wise thing to do. Two killers are after him, and the reader spends some of the novel following the killers. They’re quirky, which makes a certain amount of sense since normal people don’t torture and kill for a living, but giving the bad guys some amusing traits is also a John Sandford trademark.

Of course, the reader spends most of the novel following Davenport. For some of the novel he’s teamed with a couple of other deputy marshals. Sandford always give secondary characters believable personalities, and the marshals are a good addition to the cast. The ending hints that they might return in a future novel.

Sandford has a dry and droll sense of humor that infects most of the characters, good guys and bad guys alike. Some of the action takes Davenport to Texas and the southwest, far removed from his usual Minnesota environs. That gives Davenport a chance make wry comparisons of the states and their people.

The last quarter of the novel is essentially an extended chase scene that culminates in an extended shootout, but few writers manage those elements as well as Sandford. The action makes the story race forward, but not so quickly that the characters don’t have time to poke fun at each other. In short, this is a solid entry in a series that consistently entertains.



Escape Clause by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on October 18, 2016

Escape Clause is a Virgil Flowers novel, the ninth in that series by the prolific John Sandford. The novel follows on the heels of Sandford’s last Lucas Davenport novel, Extreme Prey. Davenport, Virgil’s former boss, chats with Virgil occasionally and the novel includes some references to events that occurred in Extreme Prey, but you don’t need to read Extreme Prey to understand Escape Clause. The two novels tell independent stories. Amazon reviewers who complained that Extreme Prey was “too political” (it really isn’t) need not worry about Escape Clause, which has nothing to do with politics apart from Virgil’s encounter with an animal rights activist.

The novel opens with the theft of two tigers from the Minnesota Zoo. Yes, tigers. The thieves want the tigers for their medicinal properties. Among other health benefits reputed to derive from tiger pills, certain parts of endangered Amur tigers are believed to be more effective than Viagra. Zoo officials are worried that the tigers will be killed before they can be recovered. Virgil is therefore under a time crunch to find them.

A subplot involves Virgil’s girlfriend Frankie and her sister Sparkle, whose dissertation research about migrant workers in a pickle factory is attracting the wrong kind of attention. They both meet with rough treatment during the course of the story. Virgil’s colleague Catrin Mattson is called in to investigate (and to keep Virgil from killing the guy who beat up Frankie).

Escape Clause delivers exactly what a fan would expect from Sandford:  a lively story seasoned with humor, quirky criminals, and an abundance of local (Minnesota and Wisconsin) color. Virgil methodically works his way through potential suspects, including a drug-addicted doctor, a Chinese father and son who have little regard for each other, a couple of Armenian brothers who have an exceedingly protective family, and the animal rights activist. The reader knows who committed the tiger theft right from the start, so this is more of a police procedural than a mystery.

Like many Sandford novels, Escape Clause is more amusing than exciting, although it does have some suspenseful moments and occasional gunfire. For the most part, however, the novel is light and breezy. The ending -- well, you know before finishing the first chapter how the novel will end, but no other ending would be quite as satisfying. I imagine that most readers who have enjoyed other Sandford novels will also enjoy this one.



Extreme Prey by John Sandford

Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 26, 2016

Marlys Purdy is a middle-aged woman who wouldn’t strike casual observers as a likely murderer -- unless they happen to catch her displaying her rage. Having lost a farm and a husband, and facing a new financial disaster after recovering from the first one, Marlys has grievances. She also has mental health issues. Marlys’ son Cole inherited the family tendency toward paranoia, and his service in Iraq only contributed to his disordered thinking.

Marlys wants to kill Michaela Bowden, the probable Democratic presidential candidate, who will soon be in Iowa campaigning in advance of the caucus. Marlys is equally disdainful of the Republican candidates, who (in Marlys’ view) favor bankers rather than little people. Marlys thinks that removing Bowden from the Democratic race would pave the way for the governor of Minnesota, a self-made millionaire whose Democratic primary campaign is based on his claim to be on the side of common folk.

The governor does not think he could win the general election but believes he can wrangle his way into a vice presidential candidacy if Bowden wins the nomination. When the governor hears remarks suggesting that Bowden’s life might be threatened, he turns to Lucas Davenport, who no longer works in law enforcement. Instead, Lucas does whatever needs doing whenever the governor needs it done, provided he gets paid.  The governor wants Davenport to identify and to stop the threat to Bowden's life. And with that setup, a new novel in the Prey series is born.

Extreme Prey is essentially an investigative procedural. Davenport investigates some wacky Iowans as well as some Iowans who used to be active in alternative politics but have mellowed with age. John Sandford makes it easy for the reader to understand why political issues, coupled with the government’s approach to homeland security, sometimes feeds the delusions of people who are certain that  the government is out to get them and that government officials are eavesdropping on their telephone calls.

I haven’t read every book in the Prey series but I’ve enjoyed the ones that I’ve read. This one moves quickly, with an occasional action scene providing a break from the ongoing investigation. The novel doesn’t create much tension or excitement, however, until the final fifty pages, when Sandford unloads with an intense, extended scene that speeds the story to its conclusion. And while much of the plot seems predictable, the assassination scheme is quite clever. Compared to other Prey novels I’ve read, Extreme Prey is no worse than average, which makes it pretty good.