There are few events more welcome in the literary world than the appearance of another John Sandford book. The newly published MAD RIVER is the latest installment in his Virgil Flowers series; it is a fast-moving, violent tale played out against the backdrop of the farmlands and small towns of rural Minnesota.
"...a fast-moving, violent tale played out against the backdrop of the farmlands and small towns of rural Minnesota.... While MAD RIVER is shot through with dark humor from all sides, the grim and sudden violence that is the driving force of the book ratchets up the suspense to an almost excruciating degree."
MAD RIVER is primarily a canny and ingenious contemporary reworking of the Bonnie & Clyde and Charles Starkweather rampages. Flowers, a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator, is just coming off a vacation when he is brought abruptly back to work to investigate what initially appears to be a tragic home invasion. Sandford lets the reader know much, but not all, of what is occurring while putting Flowers in the catch-up position. It is revealed early on that a somewhat mismatched trio --- Jimmy Sharp, Becky Walsh and Tom McCall --- enters the home of the O’Leary family at Becky’s behest. Becky wants Mrs. O’Leary’s expensive jewelry; but by the time the three of them hastily exit the house, one of the O’Leary daughters is dead. A second murder quickly follows, involving an innocent who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time with an operable automobile. By this time, the outlaws’ collective blood is up; they are on the run across a remote section of Minnesota and not taking hostages.
Flowers is tasked with playing catch-up, and as the body count grows --- numbering virtually anyone and everyone who crosses paths with the trio --- the urgency of capturing them grows. At the same time, Flowers experiences some difficulty with local law enforcement, borne of past history, which goes a bit beyond the natural resentment toward state intrusion. They are united, though, by a common goal, which is to capture the murderers before they do any more harm. Things take a further interesting turn as Flowers slowly comes to the conclusion that there just might be more to the death of the first victim than was originally suspected. And when one of the fugitives secretly turns on the other two, the investigation takes turns that are both informative and puzzling. Ultimately, the chase comes to an end, but results in a final mystery for Flowers that leaves him puzzled…and the reader wiser.
Flowers remains an amusing and compelling character, one who has enough energy to rekindle an old love affair in the middle of a hot-button pursuit but who nonetheless has his priorities in fine order when called for. Lucas Davenport, Flowers’ boss and, of course, the star of the Prey series from which Flowers did spring forth, makes a welcome, in-person cameo appearance here and throughout the book manifests his presence in other ways as well (such as gently chewing Flowers’ posterior over the phone).
While MAD RIVER is shot through with dark humor from all sides, the grim and sudden violence that is the driving force of the book ratchets up the suspense to an almost excruciating degree. Sandford, who by this point has become an institution in the crime fiction genre, continues to raise his own bar regularly and repetitively.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on October 5, 2012