Crime-fiction writer comes to Oakmont for fresh 'Prey'
by Regis Behe
Pittsburgh Tribune
May 14, 2003

One of the challenges for any author of a continuing mystery or crime-fiction series is maintaining the main character's energy and vitality. John Sandford has managed to keep his protagonist Lucas Davenport compelling through the first 13 installments of his Prey series, in part because of the fictional Minnesota-based cop's penchant for romantic liaisons.
But Sandford, who will visit Mystery Lovers Bookshop on Thursday, says Davenport's days as a womanizer are over.
"I needed to get him out of that, because the series was stretching out too long and it almost begins to look pathological if there's a new romance in every book," Sandford says.
In Naked Prey, Davenport is newly married, a new father and in a new house — although it's on the same spot as his former bachelor digs. What remains the same are the constants in any good series: Sandford's flair for constructing interesting situations; witty, concise dialogue; and, especially, a character who is able but flawed, brave without being foolhardy, and smart enough to realize his limitations.
The premise of Naked Prey is worthy of — and needs — such a character. In a remote town in northern Minnesota, a man and a woman are found hanged from a tree. Because the man is black and the woman is white, Davenport — who now works for a state agency as a sort of troubleshooter — is called in to quickly solve the crime and defuse any racial overtones.
Davenport eventually uncovers a web of crime in the small outpost that includes a car-theft ring and a colony of religious women who are involved in an illegal drug trade. But a lot of the tension in Naked Prey stems from a rivalry between local law enforcement officers and the FBI.
Sandford, who worked the cops beat as a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press — he won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1986 — leaves little doubt about which law enforcement group he favors.
"Cops by and large are kind of work-a-day guys who have to deal with a lot of crappy crimes," he says. "They're out on the street all the time. An average street cop in Minneapolis will make 200 times as many arrests — maybe 1,000 times as many arrests — as an FBI guy. An FBI guy might make half a dozen arrests per year, and a cop might make 300 or 400 arrests. He might arrest a couple of people a day."
Because FBI agents tend to be called in to solve crimes that are more complicated and far-reaching, Sandford says that creates a sort of class system that he witnessed as a journalist.
"When I was a reporter and I would go to the cops, I usually didn't have too much trouble," he says, noting that most local cops understood he was only doing his job. "But go to the FBI office, and they have all this security, they aren't going to talk to you unless you go through nine different guys, and they stonewall you. And they stonewall you when they don't have to.
"There's a level of furious arrogance, completely aside from their competence — they may be competent, but they have this big, fat layer of arrogance that makes you not like them."
Unlike Davenport, who Sandford depicts as cerebral and engaging even as he seems to relish the often violent nature of his profession. Yet he also has a layer of vulnerability. In Mortal Prey, the series' previous book, Sandford reluctantly finished off one of Davenport's — and Sandford's — favorite characters, contract killer Clara Rinker.
Sensing that Davenport needed a woman apart from his wife to provide conflict, Sandford introduces a new female foil in Naked Prey: Letty West, only 12, "A little Annie Oakley" who "wanders around with an old .22 and machete and a bunch of traps."
Sandford says that, in the same way that Rinker was more than just a robotic killer, Letty West provides Davenport with a sparring partner.
"I want them to struggle with each other, but I want it to be more of a philosophical struggle in which they engage each other in a number of ways," Sandford says, noting that Letty will definitely be seen again.
"This young girl asks questions of Davenport, and she sees a reality that Davenport really doesn't want to deal with: Is Davenport really a mean (jerk)? I think Letty will see that side of him more clearly than he does, and she'll make it a point."