The writing of John Sandford is like a drug. Go ahead and pick up one of his Lucas Davenport novels --- yeah, right there on that shelf, any one with the word "PREY" as the second word of the two-word title --- and start reading. Davenport is a wise guy with power, and that is a potentially dangerous combination, except that he's smart enough to know when to rein it in, at least most of the time. He's such an interesting character --- independently wealthy, a magnet for women, intelligent --- that he kind of takes on a life of his own. It's easy to forget that he is Sandford's creation; Davenport is only as good as Sandford can be. Fortunately for the reader, that is very, very good indeed.
The latest Davenport novel, HIDDEN PREY, pretty much begins where NAKED PREY left off, with Davenport comfortably ensconced in domestic tranquility with wife Weather and baby Sam, and in his almost-new job as a troubleshooter for the Minnesota State Police. Davenport's new life, if you will, is a terrific plot device, removing him from the Minneapolis area and letting him beat around to the more exotic, less traveled parts of Minnesota. Marriage doesn't cramp Davenport's style as much as one would expect, mostly because his style has changed; he doesn't chafe under the yoke of monogamy or even seem to regard it as much of a yoke. As the old joke goes, Davenport is of mixed heritage possessing roamin' eyes and rushin' hands --- he keeps his hands in check even if his eyes do check out the scenery.
The scenery, in this case, is Russian --- one Nadezhda "call me Nadya" Kalin. Kalin is officially a Russian policewoman, but it soon becomes evident that she is at once something more and less than that. She has come to the United States to investigate the murder of Vladimir Orslov, a Russian national who met a violent and unexpected end on the dark piers of Lake Superior. Orslov, it turns out, is the son of a very powerful man in the new Russian government. The reason for Orslov's murder is unclear; it might be robbery, violent happenstance, or political assassination. The Russians want some closure on the matter, and the quicker, the better.
When an elderly woman thought to have witnessed the murder meets a violent end as well, Davenport and the local police are at loose ends, unsure if it is a serial killer who is at large or if there is something more nefarious occurring. Indeed, there is more --- much more --- roiling beneath the surface in small towns and byways of upstate Minnesota, including a mystery linking generations of families and surreptitious activities conducted at the behest of a foreign master that has all but forgotten its servants.
Sandford, always a master, continues to outshine himself here. He keeps the reader ahead of Davenport's curve of knowledge, but only slightly, feeding out just enough information to keep things progressing nicely, while Davenport occasionally wanders in the wrong direction only to stumble back onto the right path with a combination of street smarts, intelligence and dogged police work. Kalin almost steals HIDDEN PREY away from Davenport...oh, what the heck, she does steal it, with a combination of charm and an endearing misunderstanding of English metaphors.
Sandford additionally gives his reader a bit of a travelogue of the smaller towns and hamlets of rural Minnesota. Hibbing, for example, is on the map primarily due to its being the birthplace of Bob Dylan, but I did not know until reading HIDDEN PREY that there is a Virginia, Minnesota, and that its five block main drag is of some notorious interest.
In HIDDEN PREY Sandford continues to develop Davenport's evolution as a character, keeping his core personality familiar while constantly and subtly continuing to change and shape his surface. While Davenport as a character is strong enough to have some scenes stolen from him, it might be nice if Sandford could find a way to bring Kalin back to Minnesota at some time in the future. That possibility alone makes the next Davenport novel worth anticipating.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on April 26, 2005