John Sandford (a.k.a. John Camp), is a thriller writer, and probably my favourite writer, at least for now (for the record, my all-time favourite is Clifford D. Simak). In 1989 he published Rules of Prey, set in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul, which introduced his central character, Lucas Davenport, and a bunch of Minneapolis homicide cops that one gets to know well, as Sandford doesn’t deal in cardboard cutouts, all involved in the hunt for a crazed serial killer, the Maddog.
There are 17 books featuring Davenport and his colleagues, of which I have all but the most recent, Invisible Prey – I’m waiting for the paperback. When first encountered, Davenport is a Lieutenant on suspension, but throughout most of series he’s a Deputy Chief of Police, a political appointee.
Almost all of Sandford’s characters are drawn in considerable detail, even the most minor and transient; he’s a little Dickensian in that respect, which is no bad thing. He writes very clearly and crisply – never using a single word more than necessary (a lesson Stephen King could usefully learn, as I’ve observed elsewhere!), and he writes short sentences and paragraphs – easy to read on days when your brain has turned to mush. It’s also a style that moves the narrative along briskly.
He manages to put the reader inside the heads of Davenport, and the killers he hunts, with equal facility. Neither, though, are very nice places to be, especially Davenport’s, as his is a troubled and driven personality, but somewhere inside is a nice guy trying to get out. He succeeds occasionally.
Davenport’s private life is complicated and not a little fraught. On the one hand, he loves a surgeon, Weather Karkinnen (one book in the series, typeset, presumably, by a fan of James Herbert’s Dune, calls her Harkinnen!), who first appears in Winter Prey, in which she cuts his throat (you’ll have to read it to find out why), and as this relationship is such a central theme, that’s all I’m telling you. He does, though, have a habit of fucking, or wanting to fuck, or has a history of fucking, pretty much any woman with a pulse in the Cities. That’s not entirely unfair – one character has said that he’s running out of available women, and he’ll soon have to start dating out of town.
Davenport is an extremely complex character, part ladies man, part thug, part clothes-horse; an extremely literate man who loves poetry as much as the hunt, and is deeply into writing computer gaming, on the back of which he built quite a fortune producing police training programs (cooler than it sounds!). He also indulges a passion for war games with a psychologist nun, a childhood friend and another complicated relationship.
The books are written serially, but also stand alone very successfully – you don’t have to have read the previous books in the series – you can pick it up anywhere, and there’s just enough back-story to cover the gaps. He never refers to people and events in previous books without you knowing what and why, and it always enhances the current narrative, rather than getting in the way of it. The back-story in his first, Rules of Prey, works so successfully that, for a while, I was looking for a previous book that I thought I’d missed. Inevitably, some books in the series are a little better than others – but none will disappoint and all will keep you engrossed to the end, and there’s such a wealth of detail that they all bear repeat reading.
Davenport’s sex life is complicated, and that’s the only point where reading out of sequence lets the reader down just a little. It’s a minor point, though, and soon forgotten, and the lives of the other central characters aren’t neglected, either.
The Prey books made Sandford’s name, but he has written other stuff, both before, during and since, which, for some strange reason, haven’t attracted quite the same attention. I can, I suppose, understand why – the exploits of Davenport and company do rather reach out and grab you, whereas his Kidd books (4 of them), are rather more cerebral. Actually, make that a lot more. This is what I’m currently reading, and I’ve just started the third book in the series.
Kidd is a watercolour artist in St. Paul (Sandford lives in the Cities), a computer hacker and criminal, in no particular order. He has an aging ginger tomcat, and an on-off relationship with his partner in crime, LuEllen, an extremely succesful burglar who only steals cash and cash substitutes – coin and stamp collections, precious stones and the like – easily portable, easily converted into cash. Kidd loves LuEllen, a fact which terrifies her!
Unlike Davenport, I don’t have an image in my head of Kidd – maybe this is intentional, making him enigmatic, nor can I visualise LuEllen. It’s as if the art, the computers, the crime, the cat and the Tarot are more important than the people. Odd, but I suspect it is intentional – Sandford is too good a writer to do this accidentally. Or maybe it’s just me… Interestingly, in the first Kidd book, The Fool’s Run, you can see the seeds of some events in the subsequent Prey books.
I don’t, personally, think that Kidd works quite as well as Davenport (he is, if you will, the other side of the Davenport coin, to a degree), but nevertheless, the books provide a welcome, slightly slower-paced and thoughtful diversion. That’s not to say they’re all talk and no action, not by a long way, thought there’s less blood and brutality than in the Prey books, and Kidd has more regard for his own skin than Davenport, but the Kidd books are certainly as thoroughly absorbing as the Prey series.
The first book in the Kidd series, The Fool’s Run, was Sandford’s first published book (initially under his own name, John Camp). Kidd is – although he denies it vehemently – addicted to the Tarot (the Fool being, according to some sources, the main card in the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck), and the Tarot features so strongly, at times, that it’s rather got me interested.
As many of you will know, I’m not remotely religious, nor am I superstitious, but there’s something about the Tarot, as depicted by Sandford, that has struck a chord. So much so that, once Christmas is over, I’m getting myself some Tarot cards – the Rider Waite deck. If you’re interested, there’s a review here. Rider Waite, by the way, is often rendered as Ryder-Waite, and this is the form preferred by Sandford, though he corrects it in the final book in the series. All the decks I’ve seen pics of online are marked Rider Waite, so I assume Ryder is an American cock-up. All four Kidd books are named for cards in the Major Arcana – Fool, Empress, Devil and Hanged Man.
I’ve no idea why the Tarot has snared my imagination, but there’s no denying that it has, and more about it may well appear somewhere here in the future.
There are some half-dozen books outside the Prey and Kidd series, that I haven’t yet read, but when I have they’ll appear in these pages.
One thing I can’t understand – there’s been almost zero Hollywood or TV interest in Sandford – quite possibly because snowy Minnesota doesn’t appeal – boots and parkas just aren’t sexy (though as film makers happily change almost everything except the name, moving the location to California shouldn’t bother them). The Coen brothers made it work, though, with Fargo. Mind you, on book sales alone, Sandford isn’t exactly hurting, so maybe he’s not bothered. OK, he’s not in King’s or Rowling’s league, but few are – and he’s a far better writer than either…
As far as I know, all Sandford’s books are currently in print, though in my experience shopping online will get you a better selection than your local Waterstone’s or Smith’s.