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Posts tagged ‘Lucas Davenport’

When Good Writers Go Bad: The Mystery of John Sandford

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.


Crime Spree

I read a lot of books, trying to balance my literary diet with a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. That said, the bulk of what I read leans heavily towards crime fiction. Call the genre crime fiction, or even mystery (sometimes, though, there is no actual “mystery” involved in the plot), but I really detest the term “thriller.” Such a flippant categorization just cheapens the novel, in my opinion. Sure, some books in this genre may not qualify as “serious” literature, and will most likely never be nominated for a Booker Prize (then again, most of those picks are total head scratchers), but that doesn’t make the book disposable fluff either.


In any case, I’ve been on a real crime reading spree lately, more than usual. I even set aside a couple of non-fiction books that I had been reading (John Man’s book about Genghis Khan, and a biography about the intrepid early 20th century explorer Gertrude Bell), so that I could buzz through a few new novels. During my recent trip to Myanmar I read City of Fire by Robert Ellis, Dance for the Dead by Thomas Perry, and Three Doors to Death by Rex Stout (okay, that one wasn’t exactly “new”, but I’d never read it).


There was a blurb by Michael Connelly on the cover of City of Fire, raving about the book. I was wary, though. Some of those glowing reviews don’t always translate to an impressive read. The Ellis novel, however, turned out to be as good as advertised. A tense, taught mystery with an engaging female protagonist in Detective Lena Gamble, the necessary shady characters, some interesting music references (like Connelly’s Harry Bosch character, Lena is a jazz fan), some absolutely horrific crime scenes, a few surprising plot twists, and plenty of lively dialogue. Since I returned to Bangkok I also devoured The Lost Witness, the sequel to City of Fire, which once again features Lena Gamble. Another excellent read, reaffirming my belief that this Ellis is about to join the elite ranks of crime fiction writers.


I had read two of Thomas Perry’s older novels, both featuring the “Butcher’s Boy” hit man character and enjoyed those very much. Dance for the Dead, however, features an entirely different protagonist, Jane Whitefield, a young Native American woman who protects deserving people in trouble, often helping them “disappear” from the bad guys. Very interesting premise and Jane Whitefield is a most unique character. The only knock against this novel was the lame dialogue. It just didn’t have the ring of authenticity that I associate with top tier mystery writers. Plus, each character tended to sound the same: the 8-year old boy, the 21-year old gang-banger, the middle-aged judge, the senior citizen neighbor, and even Jane herself, all used the same vocabulary and had the same speech patterns. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book enough that I plan to read others in the series.


Three Doors to Death is a collection of three Nero Wolf “short mysteries”. I love this series, especially the colorful characters; the delightfully acerbic and eccentric Wolfe; and Archie Goodwin, his womanizing, witty, and clever assistant. Fine dining, orchids, sparkling dialogue, and dead bodies galore. What’s not to like? It always amazes me that these books were written so many years ago (the late 1940s in the case of these short stories) yet they still thrill and fascinate.


Once I was back in Bangkok, my mystery addiction only intensified. I paid a visit to the Kinokuniya branch in the Emporium and picked up the new novels from John Sandford and Barry Eisler. The Sandford book, Stolen Prey, is the latest in his series featuring the sharp-dressed Minnesota crime investigator Lucas Davenport. His goofy sidekick, Virgil Flowers (the star of another series by Sandford) also pops up several times in this tale. Like the other books in the Prey series, this one has multiple plots, witty dialogue, grisly murders, and is a delight to read.


Eisler’s The Detachment marks the return of his popular John Rain character, his colorful — and lethal — cohort Dox, and a couple of characters from the previous two non-Rain novels. These four hired assassins are lured into taking a most challenging assignment, but it soon become apparent that this “mission” isn’t all what they thought it would be. Have they become targets themselves? Eisler injects a bit of political intrigue into the plot, further ratcheting up the page-turning factor. Some scary cyber scenarios are presented, most of which are entirely plausible in this technology-driven age.


At my own bookshop I was thrilled to find the new novels from Daniel Suarez and T. Jefferson Parker. I had read the first two books by Suarez (Daemon and Freedom) and enjoyed them very much, so I was quite happy to find an “Advance Reading Copy” of his new novel, Kill Decision. This could be his best book yet, a riveting tale of high-tech warfare and political manipulation, featuring deadly drones and creepy military characters. Like Eisler’s book, a lot of disturbing “it could really happen” elements figure in the plot. At the end of their books, both Eisler and Suarez offer lists of recommended reading, based on the controversial topics covers in their novels. Much appreciated! But you may want to throw away your cell phone and go into hiding after reading those two particular books. Orwell was prophetic: Big Brother is now watching — and tracking — our every move.


The Parker book, Iron River, is another novel featuring the Deputy Charlie Hood character. This was as good as expected, but it took me a while to get into the flow of the story. Parker uses a couple of different narratives, including one that’s oddly in the first person, plus the story switches from California to Mexico and back again, as Hood and cohorts attempt to rescue a colleague who has been kidnapped by a ruthless drug gang. Despite the odd plot, I credit Parker with “stretching out” and trying something a bit different. There is plenty of action and plenty of twisted characters, propelled by Parker’s flair for writing believable and colorful dialogue, along with telling an interesting story.  


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