I popped into the Emporium shopping center in Bangkok last week, looking to kill some time before meeting a friend for dinner. Browsing the increasing limited bookshelves at the Asia Books branch there (unless you’re looking for the latest bestsellers, forget about finding anything remotely old), I was pleased to see the new John Sandford novel, Storm Front. Or was this the new one? The title looked quite familiar. I checked the publication date, which was 2013, so it appeared to be a new book, but I’ve been burned before, so I scanned the other titles listed under Sandford’s name. Ah, there it was: the similarly titled Storm Prey. It was confusing enough when all the books in the Lucas Davenport series had “Prey” in the title, but now Sandford seems to be borrowing words from past titles for his new books too!
I’m a big fan of John Sandford’s novels. I’ve read the entire “Prey” series, all the Kidd books (the artist turned computer hacker), the handful of one-off titles that he’s written, and everything in the recent Virgil Flowers series. This new novel is also part of the Virgil Flowers series, but fair warning to longtime fans; this one’s a stinker. By the third chapter it was obvious that something was more than a bit “off” about this novel. Not only was the dialogue flat and sophomoric, but the characters themselves were shallow and their actions inconsistent. Not at all like previous Sandford novels. All of which leaves the reader to wonder: Did John Sandford even write this novel?
For those who have read the other books in the Virgil Flowers series, you will have noticed an “Acknowledgement” — one could even call it a disclaimer — preceding the first chapter in each novel, telling the reader that the book was “written with” or “in cooperation with” some old friend or fishing buddy of Sandford’s. In the case of this new novel, Sandford says in the acknowledgement: “I wrote this novel with help from my partner, Michele Cook, journalist and screenwriter, and now a novelist.”
But to me, it’s still not clear: Has Cook written another novel, or is this one her first effort? And if so, why is her name not on the cover along with Sandford’s? In past episodes of the Virgil Flowers series, the influence of any outside collaborator was subtle at best. The books were consistent enough in quality that it seemed like the same person was writing them all. But this time around the collaborative effect is jarring. This novel doesn’t flow or have the same feel as other novels he’s written. Sandford says that he wrote this book “with help” from Cook, but to me the novel reads like something else entirely, as if Cook wrote the book with only a slight bit of input from Sandford.
The Virgil Flowers character has always been an engaging protagonist in Sandford’s novels, delighting readers with his wit, zest for life, shameless flirting, and dedication to the task at hand. Virgil may act like a goofball, but he’s pretty bright guy and always catches the bad guy. In this novel, however, Virgil comes off as more of an inept buffoon. The story itself is also not up to the quality of previous novels, lacking Sandford’s skillful plotting and deft use of dialogue. At times, the events in this novel are so absurd that they venture into Carl Hiaasen territory, yet it’s never as funny as something that Hiaasen would write. Instead it’s just weak. But I kept plowing through the book, intent on finishing it. Instead of enjoying the experience, like I normally do, I was just hoping it would end soon, willing it to end. But the story kept going on and on and on, any sort of climax remaining frustratingly elusive, much of the dialogue descending into stupidity.
Having co-authors seems to be in vogue nowadays. James Patterson is notorious for doing this; thanks to frequent co-author billing, he was credited with writing 13 novels last year. He’ll probably have as many this year too. The word “ridiculous” springs to mind. Clive Cussler is another veteran author who now almost always shares co-billing with another writer —although good old Clive’s name always jumps out in a much bigger font!
If John Sandord is going to keep writing this series “with help” from others, or allowing someone else to write most of the book, then he and the publisher needs to acknowledge that on the COVER of the book, not in small print buried inside the book where a potential buyer won’t see it … until it’s too late.