Stephen King calls John Sandford “one of the great summer-read novelists of all time.” The only part of that statement with which I would quibble is the “summer” limitation: Sandford, as demonstrated by his latest novel, is an author for all seasons.
"Sandford slowly lets his audience in on a clue here, a hint there, and occasionally delivers the literary equivalent of a baseball bat smack across the head in a dark room, while Lucas steadily makes his way through a web of deception, intrigue and, above all, greed."
The word “Prey” in the title is a tipoff to savvy readers that this is part of the Lucas Davenport canon. Lucas has been a special investigator for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) for a while now. But the job and the title don’t help him one bit at the beginning of STOLEN PREY when he is a victim of a violent crime. It bugs the living heck out of him, and of course he conducts an investigation, ultimately putting Virgil Flowers (the star of his own separate series, which you should be reading as well) on it. That particular case provides a secondary but interesting and amusing storyline throughout the book as Lucas is forced to focus on an entirely different matter, one that consumes BCA and puts it in an uneasy alliance with a rival law enforcement agency.
The larger, more important case is a grisly one that begins when Lucas is called to the scene of a mass murder in a wealthy suburban area of St. Paul. An entire family --- husband, wife and children --- have been discovered in a bloody tableau. The scene bears all the hallmarks of an execution by a Mexican drug cartel, and indeed, that is exactly what it is. The puzzle that Lucas must unravel on his way to apprehending the killers is why this particular family was targeted. Patrick Brooks ran a software company with no apparent ties to any criminal enterprise. Lucas and his team begin with a slender clue and work it, and are soon joined by a group of Mexican federales who may have some idea as to who the hitters are.
Meanwhile, Sandford slowly lets his audience in on a clue here, a hint there, and occasionally delivers the literary equivalent of a baseball bat smack across the head in a dark room, while Lucas steadily makes his way through a web of deception, intrigue and, above all, greed. The result is that the reader (at least this one, anyway) will often be screaming at Lucas to go that way, or to be quiet, or to look behind him. By the end, you will know more than you did about banking software, security, money laundering, and all sorts of different things. Sandford doesn’t just entertain you; he informs you as well. There are many twists and turns along the way...and don’t forget about that baseball bat in the dark room, either. I never saw it coming, just like I never saw that ending coming.
Sandford continues to get better and better, topping himself with each successive work. I used to think that it was inevitable that he would ride his streak out at some point, but now I have my doubts. If you have never encountered Sandford or Davenport before, STOLEN PREY will make you a believer --- and a reader.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 17, 2012