Sandford 'Preys' on thriller lovers
by Regis Behe
Pittsburgh Tribune Review
May 19, 2002

There's a scene in John Sandford's new novel, Mortal Prey, in which Detective Lucas Davenport [1] advises a bar owner against featuring a certain type of music in the venue: "Hiring folksingers does nothing but encourage them. It's like letting cockroaches into your house."
"I really like hard rock — the stupider the better," Sandford says during a phone interview, noting his affinity for Aerosmith, AC/DC and Bob Seger. "I can even listen to Black Sabbath [2] for a little while... It's sort of stupid rock 'n' roll, but it's also real rock 'n' roll."
The same can be said about Sandford's writing — minus, of course, the stupidity. Mortal Prey, the 13th book in his Prey series featuring Davenport, is a smart, knowing take on the thriller genre. Like the best rock 'n' roll, it's visceral, engaging and hits a reader in the gut with its intensity.
Simultaneously, like a Bob Dylan song, Sandford's writing also is cerebral and penetrating. As a journalist with the St. Paul Pioneer [3], Sandford (his pen name; his real name is John Camp) won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for a series of stories about American farm families in crisis. Sandford says he doesn't miss the daily grind of the newsroom but does miss covering interesting stories.
"I like going out and figuring things out," he says, noting he'd love to go to the Middle East and write about the current conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Davenport especially shares his creator's natural curiosity for problem solving. In Mortal Prey, Davenport is sent to St. Louis to help track a former foe. Despite her folksy name, Clara Rinker is a ruthless, cunning and fearless hit woman, intent on avenging the death of her boyfriend, who was killed by a bullet meant for her.
Sandford's trick lies in making readers feel sympathetic toward Rinker, a character who was abused by her father. At one point in the narrative, even Davenport urges her to stop her rampage of killing and flee to South America, Mexico, or any place where she'll never be found.
"If you've ever lived in country places, you sort of know people who are heartbreaking in the same way that Rinker is," Sandford says. "What you wind up with people like Clara is they're people who could have been something if they'd had a chance... If circumstances had been better, she might have been an executive in a big corporation [4]. Instead, she winds up the way she is."
If there's a sense Sandford is talking about people he knows, it's because his characters are real to him. Not in any delusional way, but "Davenport senses the same kind of things I do about Clara," he says, "which is the heartbreaking aspect. He also feels a kinship to her.... She wound up on the dark side of things, and Lucas wound up on the right side of things [5], and it's almost like there is a spiritual link between the two and what they do."
Davenport's character, however, is the heart and soul of Sandford's work. He's a cop who doesn't mind working outside the boundaries and lines to get results, and is a composite of the men he met while working the crime beat as a journalist.
"You get to know these cops and a lot of them are really smart," he says. "There are some who are unpleasant and not-so-educated, but it's probably the same intellectual range as teachers or any other occupation. A lot of them are really sharp, and Lucas represents a lot of things that come out of my experiences covering these cops."
Which, by the way, were infinitely more pleasing than the times he had to deal with the FBI. In Mortal Prey, Lucas is brought in by the Feds to track Rinker, but is more often than not exasperated by the strict adherence to procedures and policies.
All too true, Sandford says.
"You'd call the FBI to ask for a nugget of pointless information to keep your editors happy, and they'd run your (read end) around the tree about nine times and you'd wind up with nothing," he says. "I could call somebody over at the police department, and they'd give it to me because nobody cares.... That's why I sort of do a number on the FBI."
After 13 books featuring Davenport (he's also written three novels in a series featuring con artists Kidd and LuEllen, and a stand-alone novel, The Night Crew), Sandford admits it is becoming a bit harder to refrain from repeating himself. As a journalist, he could "pretty much sit down and burp out a story," he says. "And it would be fairly well-written and grammatical and read smoothly enough, because I'd been doing it for so long. But it's getting harder to come up with compelling stories."
It's not enough, he adds, to write about petty thieves who steal televisions. At the conclusion of Mortal Prey, Sandford hints at change: Davenport's longtime girlfriend, Weather, is pregnant and about to give birth to a child [6]. In past novels, the character has been something of a skirt chaser — "he just really loves women," Sandford says with a laugh — but no more.
But the idea of Davenport giving up solving crimes for family life is about as likely as Ozzy Osbourne eschewing heavy metal music for classical music [7]. It's not going to happen.
"His situation is going to change," Sandford allows. "He's going to get married, going to have this kid, and actually change jobs and go to work for the state bureau of criminal apprehension [8]. What I'm doing is trying to get him out of Minneapolis so he can do some state-to-state stuff. He'll be able to go up into the north woods and down into the farm country."


1. Actually, it's not Lucas. It's Rinker, talking to John Sellos in chapter 7. I don't know why the article says Lucas.

2. This puzzled me, so I checked out my dad's office CD collection. Nope, no Black Sabbath. The AC/DC is there, as is Aerosmith. Most of the CDs are jazzy/bluesy stuff though. Sure, there's some harder stuff, but... well, he's got a copy of Metallica's black album (which I've heard called "The Black Album" or just "Metallica"), but the disc inside is Little Feat's "Ain't Had Enough Fun". The Metallica disc itself has been missing for quite some time.

3. I don't think it's been called just the St. Paul Pioneer for decades, if it ever was. It's always been the Pioneer Press (in some iteration or other).

4. Just an opinion here. My dad says that she could have been an executive like it's a good thing.

5. Bit of a mixed metaphor here, for lack of a better term. My dad's divided things into dark vs. right. Now if it was dark vs. light, I wouldn't have a problem. But to say that the dark is never, ever right is a bit... uh... well, it's too polarized to be real. In my opinion.

6. As distinct from... what? The kind of pregnancy wherein she might give birth to a full-grown adult?

7. I'm not sure that I remember this correctly, but I do recall reading somewhere a long time ago that Ozzy actually does like classical music. Of course, the paragraph says that he'll never eschew heavy metal for it, which is quite a different statement, but I thought I'd say it anyway.

8. That should be capitalized. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension is actually its name, and not just a general classification.