John Sandford has been writing books for nearly 20 years. He has
reached the point in his life where he could comfortably coast,
succumbing to the temptation to follow a formula with his Davenport
novels, keeping the masses of fans he has deservedly acquired over
the years happy by presenting a Davenport title on an annual basis
following the theory that the best surprise is no surprise.
Instead, Sandford has taken a road less traveled but far more
interesting. He has actually increased his output, spinning a new
series off of the Davenport mythos, while maintaining not only
frequency but also quality in his Prey series.
Wait a minute. Did I say “maintaining”? That would
be wrong. Sandford sets and exceeds his own benchmarks, and with
WICKED PREY presents his best and most ambitious novel to date.
Sandford sets WICKED PREY spinning along two tracks that
intersect briefly but importantly before the end of the book. The
first concerns a gang assembled in Minneapolis on the eve of the
2008 Republican National Convention. Aware that lobbyists will be
clandestinely distributing cash for campaign use, the gang plans a
series of quick hits to build a very large pot. If all goes
according to plan, their road to unjust enrichment will end with a
separate heist that will enable all of them to retire in style.
Their only problem, however, is their leader, a criminal genius
whose tragic flaw is a hair trigger temper that in turn leads to
homicidal tendencies. Think Richard Stark’s Parker without
the benevolent restraint and you’ll get the idea. The beauty
of WICKED PREY is that Davenport gets a heads up on the
gang’s presence in Minneapolis; he just doesn’t know
the where or the when of their heists, at least not initially.
The result is a deadly game of cat-and-mouse carried out between
Davenport and the police on one side and the gang on the other,
with Davenport playing almost-but-not-quite catch-up, arriving on
the scene a few seconds later and a few cents too short. When he
figures out the gang’s ultimate target, however, it is due
not so much to good police work as to a clue inadvertently provided
by Letty West, who is soon to be adopted by Davenport and his wife
Ah, Letty. Watch out for that one. She is 14 years old, a bit
precocious, yet vulnerable and more like Davenport than either
would care to admit. It is Letty who plays a major role in the
second but by no means lesser plot line of WICKED PREY. Randy
Whitcomb is a petty thief turned pimp, a thoroughly despicable
waste of air and skin whose permanent confinement to a wheelchair
he blames on Davenport. Deciding to extract a pound of flesh from
Davenport in revenge, he devises an extremely dangerous plan to
kidnap Letty and hurt Davenport worse than he possibly could if he
attacked him directly.
But Letty has crammed a good deal of life into 14 years, and
possesses an intriguing combination of loyalty, toughness and
street smarts. When she inadvertently learns of Whitcomb’s
plan, Letty does not want to disturb Davenport with it, figuring he
has enough to worry about. Instead, she begins to slowly but
surely turn the tables on Whitcomb. It is not giving away anything
to tell you that Whitcomb, though dangerous, is totally outclassed.
Letty is not just any 14-year-old, and watching her plan slowly,
surely and, yes, ruthlessly unfold is worth the price of admission
all by itself.
I will say it again: WICKED PREY is Sandford’s best book.
If you stopped reading him a while ago because you thought he had
nothing left to say, you need to jump back on and then catch up on
any of his backlist titles that you might have missed; otherwise
you are cheating yourself. And one other thing: there is a
paragraph, a little more than halfway through the novel, that
concerns Davenport’s reaction to some very bad news. It is
only about nine lines long and is absolutely perfect, possibly as
good as the opening paragraph to THE LAST GOOD KISS by James
Crumley. It rockets along so fast that you will literally be out of
breath by the end of it. You’ll know it when you read it, but
don’t skip ahead. You’ll miss so much, and this is one
book that you don’t want to miss.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011