ROUGH COUNTRY, John Sandford’s latest work, proves that
his skills show no signs of dulling. This is the third installment
in the Virgil Flowers series, a spinoff of his Lucas Davenport
books, of which he has written a shelf full.
For the uninitiated, Virgil Flowers is an investigator with the
Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, which is headed up by
the aforementioned Lucas Davenport. Davenport is Flowers’s
boss, though in ROUGH COUNTRY (and the other Flowers books), his
presence is basically limited to a voice over the phone (and very
intermittently at that). This helps to keep Davenport from
overshadowing Flowers and also allows Flowers to develop as his own
character. The reader sees that he is a bit more of an everyman
than Davenport; unlike Davenport, he does not have more money than
God, is not married (though he is most definitely a player), and
has a bit more sass to him, which is played up quite well here.
Also, Flowers’s methods of investigation are unorthodox
(though not exceedingly so); his style may cause one’s
eyebrows to go up, but no one is in total shock over his
behavior…for the most part, anyway.
One of Sandford’s major strengths is his ability to create
characters who think and act like real law enforcement personnel.
This helps the reader to be totally engrossed in the story, which
is set in a majestic but remote area of northern Minnesota. As
ROUGH COUNTRY opens, Flowers is competing in a fishing tournament
when he gets a call from Davenport that yanks him back on duty. A
woman has been shot and killed while kayaking at Eagles Nest Lodge
in Grand Rapids, a women-only resort where the guests can relax,
unwind, recuperate, and, as it turns out, engage in some other
activities that aren’t exactly spelled out in the
Flowers initially isn’t wild about the assignment, but
since everyone else is busy hunting a missing teenager known as
“Little Linda,” he becomes the go-to guy. As he
gradually warms to the task, Flowers discovers that there is a web
of connections among the victim, the resort employees, a local bar,
and a female country singer with dreams of hitting the big time.
And for various reasons, everyone seems to be hiding something.
What don’t they want Flowers to find out? And what does it
all have to do with this woman’s murder?
Sandford has Flowers doing what he does best --- kicking things
up and turning things over until he gets to the heart of the
matter. It is only when the killer attempts to claim another
victim, however, that Flowers is inadvertently provided with the
clue that he needs to crack the case and bring the murderer to
justice while solving (intentionally or otherwise) another case or
three in the process.
The characters in ROUGH COUNTRY --- the ones who wander on and
off the page and the ones who hang in there for chapter after
chapter --- are sharply drawn and memorable, and the plot is
equally entertaining and compelling. Ultimately, there is one heck
of a mystery to unravel here, and Sandford, veteran that he is,
does a magnificent job of laying it out. The reader, by the midway
point, will be a step or two ahead of Flowers, until the end when
Flowers sprints ahead. You won’t mind, though. And
you’ll be laughing here and there along the way as well.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 23, 2011