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Book review of John Sandford's "Storm Prey"

(Courtesy Of Putnam - Courtesy Of Putnam)
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By Richard Lipez
Monday, July 12, 2010

STORM PREY

By John Sandford

Putnam. 408 pp. $27.95

John Sandford is one of the busiest and most popular practitioners of the airport potboiler. "Storm Prey" is the 20th Lucas Davenport thriller, a series that has produced so much fictional grisly mayhem in the upper Midwest that there must be people who think Vlad the Impaler spoke with a Minnesota accent. Putnam is doing a 500,000-copy first printing of "Storm Prey," and the company's shareholders are unlikely to be disappointed. Sandford sells.

Like Robert B. Parker in his last sad years, however, Sandford seems to be operating on automatic pilot in this one. All of Sandford's writing habits -- good or bad, depending on how you look at them -- get a workout here. Scenes are short and punchy, keeping the narrative moving at full gallop. At times, though, Sandford seems to be producing these bursts of typing for people with severe ADD.

He has done his usual crackerjack job of research. In "Storm Prey," we learn all about twins conjoined at birth and the complexities of surgically separating them. Who knew that 1 percent of conjoined twins required "craniopagus separation," which involves complex brain surgery? A lot of this data, however, feels as if it was transferred directly from a Google source into the mouths of Sandford's characters.

Sandford also serves up his customary graphic, hideous murders, for which some of his hundreds of thousands of fans probably shell out the hardcover big bucks while others could maybe do without them. The ghastliest murder is of a mom carjacked on the way to pick up her kids at day care. As she's strangled by a psychopath, we get to see her bug-eyed and spasming.

Front and center, at least in the early chapters of this "Prey" episode (others include "Shadow Prey," "Wicked Prey" etc.) is Weather Karkinnen, the surgeon wife of the Porsche-driving, hockey-playing, "hawkish"-nosed Minnesota State Police investigator Davenport. (What kind of name is Weather Karkinnen? Sandford loves implausibly weird names, and I had to reread a paragraph where it seemed that Sandford had named the couple's children Shrake and Jenkins. Shrake and Jenkins turned out to be a couple of cops.)

Karkinnen is brilliant, cute as a button, and makes paddlewheel-boat whistle sounds during sex. On her way into work one dark winter morning, she catches sight of a goon who's part of a gang that has just robbed the hospital pharmacy and killed an attendant. So Karkinnen is a witness the robbers think they need to rub out. She is also an essential component of the surgery team for the twins. They are fading fast, so she can't leave town or hide. Will there be a noisy climactic scene near the operating theater involving gunfire and grenades? (Yes, grenades.) Don't let me ruin anything.

Sandford's good guys and gals are a bit blurry -- I think we are supposed to know them from earlier books -- but his thugs are plenty believable enough. The most frightening is Caprice Marlon "Cappy" Garner, named after his father's Chevy. He's a skinhead psycho who was beaten as a child and has devoted his adult life to hurting people. There are the dumb Mack brothers, Lyle and Joe, who believe that "if God had meant people to ride horses, He wouldn't have invented the Fat Bob [motorcycle]." A Lebanese surgeon named Barakat is a cokehead who finds "the whole concept of crime . . . interesting: the strong taking from the weak, the smart from the stupid."

While part of Davenport's appeal is his fallibility, in "Storm Prey" he sometimes just seems dense. It's skinny little Garner who makes the first attempt on Karkinnen's life -- firing a gun at her from a motorcycle -- but for another 100 or so pages Davenport and everybody else keep looking only for the taller, bulkier men who pulled off the drug heist. After an earlier inexplicable blunder, he tells a fellow cop, "I'm so dumb." This and other lapses in "Storm Prey" made me wonder if it isn't Sandford who is being held hostage, not by criminals but by a publishing contract that calls for a book a year. As publishers' profitability dwindles, best-selling authors like Sandford have turned into cash machines publishers depend on to survive. They seem unable or unwilling to recognize when a writer may need to take a break.

Lipez writes the Don Strachey private eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson.


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