It’s easy to take John Sandford for granted. Like many mystery writers, he keeps cranking them out, and the list of his works lengthens with daunting regularity. But almost alone among such pillars of productivity (Ruth Rendell is another exception), Sandford doesn’t just go through the motions to meet contractual obligations. “Silken Prey” is the 23rd installment of his “Prey” series featuring Twin Cities detective Lucas Davenport, and quality control remains virtually unimpaired.

Sandford prefers his villains on the barmy side, and this time he’s created a nut job par excellence: Taryn Grant, the “silken Machiavelli,” a gorgeous, young Democratic politician — and sociopath — who has mapped out her reckless path all the way to the presidency of the United States. Step One is to wrest away the Minnesota Senate seat held by conservative Republican Porter Smalls. No trick is too dirty for Grant to play in carrying out her plan, no crime too odious to commit. Her guiding principle is pure expediency: If it’s likely to work and can’t be traced to her, she’ll greenlight it.

Planting kiddie porn is the main tactic used by her and her henchmen in “Silken Prey.” One of her operatives rigs up Smalls’s Minneapolis office computer so that the next time anyone touches it, up comes a batch of vile photos. The plan works: Smalls is accused and vilified, and despite his denials, Grant pulls ahead in the polls. The state’s Democratic governor senses something amiss and fears that if it turns out this is a frame-up, Democrats up and down the ticket will suffer in the election. By assigning the case to Davenport, who works for the state’s version of the FBI and is known for his brilliance, the governor can assure one and all that the state is doing its best to achieve justice. (What a novel thought in this politically nihilistic age of ours: helping your party by doing the right thing!)

Murders soon complicate the case, and for help, Davenport calls upon his regulars, including a rednecky cop named Virgil Flowers, who heads up his own line of Sandford novels (six so far). But the pivotal contributions come from Kidd, a wizardly computer hacker who is also the centerpiece of a burgeoning series (four novels), and Kidd’s lady, Lauren. She’s an ex-burglar who still misses the matchless excitement of prowling around a house she’s broken into, shopping in a thrilling manner available only to wrongful intruders. (Next to her, workaday shopaholics and kleptomaniacs are bores.) As Lauren oils her burglar’s tools, one wonders: Could a series starring her be taking shape somewhere on the Sandford assembly line?

As always in Sandford Land, his plotting is smooth, with few coincidences — or at least few that strike the reader as contrived. But I’d forgotten how shrewdly he assesses his characters, as in this description of a female staffer that should resonate in Washington: “He’d seen it often enough in government work, people who felt that they were better than their job, and better than those around them; a princess kidnapped by gypsies, and raised below her station.” And Flowers gets off a good one when he hears what sort of things Citizen Grant has been authorizing: “The legislature runs on corruption. But a killer in the U.S. Senate . . . an actual murderer? The prospect is the tiniest bit disturbing.”

“Silken Prey” is so good that one is inclined to forgive the author his one concession to thriller-writer laziness — when Davenport logs on to someone’s laptop by psyching out her password (which happens to be her daughter’s first name).

A one-man media conglomerate, Sandford spins out tales and series in a way that makes the word “prolific” seem mundane. Perhaps to do him justice, we must switch to French. Yes, that’s it: John Sanford is prolifique et magnifique!

Drabelle is mysteries editor of Book World.


By John Sandford

Putnam. 406 pp. $27.95