Among the leading crime novelists, John Sandford is notable for his sense of humor. You find it in his novels — particularly his Virgil Flowers series — and, if you happen to meet him, in casual conversation. When I met Sandford at the National Book Festival a decade ago, he professed uncertainty about the wife he had bestowed upon Lucas Davenport, the star of his hugely popular "Prey" series. The detective had run through numerous women in the early novels, Sandford said, and fearful that his promiscuity might offend some readers, he married off his hero to the beautiful and brilliant doctor Weather Karkinnen.
However, Sandford continued, he'd since come to fear that marriage might be too boring a state for his dashing hero, and he was considering the possibility of killing off Karkinnen. If so, he added, she would be granted a swift and merciful end. "Maybe a plane crash," he mused. In fact, Karkinnen is still with us, but sometimes imperiled, and her uncertain future reflects her creator's amused, often sardonic view of human nature.
I thought the early Davenport novels suffered from too many diversions — the detective's favorite jokes, his favorite rock songs — but Sandford and his readers clearly enjoyed them. Then, 10 years ago, Sandford started his second, avowedly humorous series about Davenport's sidekick, Virgil Flowers, who came to embody the author's sense of the absurd. "Deep Freeze" is the 10th novel in the Flowers series, and as always, Sandford devises a bizarre plot for his hero to untangle.
Set in the winter chill of the northern Minnesota town of Trippton, the novel is both a murder mystery and a satire of small-town life. In a previous novel, Flowers went to Trippton in search of some missing dogs and ended up exposing "a murderous conspiracy run by the local school board."
In "Deep Freeze" we meet a local dummy known as "Bug Boy" because he owns the local pest-control business. Bug Boy, recently divorced, has a chance to visit a high school classmate, the richest, if not the nicest, woman in town, who is also divorced. He has a fantasy of wooing her, so he brings along a bottle of champagne. Alas, they argue and she slaps him, whereupon he tries to slap her back, but forgets the bottle in his hand. It bangs into her head and she falls dead on her living-room floor, whereupon he flees, consoling himself that he's not a murderer, just accident-prone.
Launching his investigation, Flowers questions people who knew the dead woman. He soon discovers that the town's leading citizens are busily hopping in and out of bed with one another. Moreover, some of its most respectable women are deep into B&D (bondage and discipline) provided by lower-class hunks. One woman tells Flowers, "Keeping two men happy is the only way I can stay happy myself."
"This place . . . " Flowers sighs.
"Is exactly like every other place," she says.
Another crime emerges. A dozen local women are marketing sexed-up Barbie dolls. These X-rated Barbies, called Barbie-Os, are selling by the thousands. Barbie's corporate masters have sent a private detective to stop this outrage, but no one in Trippton will talk to her because Barbie-O sales have become the town's major source of income. When Flowers tries to investigate, four members of the Barbie brigade beat him senseless outside a bar.
Sandford doesn't always bother to make his humor plot-related. For no urgent reason, he has someone tell the venerable old joke, not printable here, about why Mickey Mouse wants to divorce Minnie. He even tosses in a bit of red-state bumper-sticker humor: "Honk If You've Never Seen a Gun Fired From a Vehicle."
Sandford's Davenport thrillers are excellent and mostly serious. Flowers's adventures are a riot, in part because of the author's belief — which he shared with me — that most criminals are remarkably stupid.
Amazingly, this is the 11th consecutive year that Sandford has published both a Davenport novel and a Flowers novel. This punishing, two-a-year pace arises at least in part from idealism. Sandford, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter before he turned to fiction, earns millions of dollars from his two best-selling series and has for years donated substantial amounts to support the homeless, animal rights and other causes. And that's no joke.
Patrick Anderson writes regularly about thrillers and mysteries for The Washington Post.
By John Sandford
Putnam. 391 pp. $29