Latest Sandford novel gets started the right way

John Camp was a successful journalist. In the 1980s, he wrote a series of articles that won him a Pulitzer Prize. Camp decided to try his hand at writing novels. After a couple of false starts, he was on his way. A publisher suggested that he should adopt a pen name.

Camp chose his paternal grandmother’s maiden name; Sandford. The rest is history. John Sandford has become one of the most successful crime fiction writers ever. He has written 20 books in his popular “Prey” series. These books feature Lucas Davenport and the detectives from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

A few years ago Sandford began to write a spin-off series. These books feature another MBCA investigator, Virgil Flowers. The fourth book in this series, “Bad Blood,” just came out. Sandford will make a rare book signing appearance in Dayton on Monday.

A number of years ago, I interviewed another legendary crime fiction writer who wrote under the name of Ed McBain. I asked him if there was any sort of a formula for writing in this genre. McBain told me that you always try to start off with a corpse. McBain would surely be delighted with Sandford’s latest book.

“Bad Blood” begins with a grain truck pulling up at a grain elevator in a rural Minnesota town. Within moments, the truck driver is dead. Within the next 10 pages we have a suicide. Or was it a murder? Ten pages later we have another suspicious death. Could these killings be related to another unsolved murder that took place a year ago just south of there?

Sheriff Lee Coakley calls the MBCA for help with her investigation. Virgil Flowers is assigned to the case. When he meets Coakley, there are immediate sparks of a romantic nature. She’s divorced and lonely. Virgil has been divorced three times (so far), and he has an eye for the ladies.

But first the investigation. Flowers quickly discovers a link between all four victims. They were all members of a mysterious church. There are more than 100 local families involved with this religion. Virgil begins to delve into this secretive organization.

In a recent interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Sandford described this group as a “long-time religious cult out of Germany that involves child abuse.” In that same interview, the author explained how he came up with the character of Virgil Flowers: “I wanted a guy who was quite a bit lighter than (Lucas) Davenport” from the “Prey” series.

Sandford navigates some tricky terrain in “Bad Blood.” How was he able to write about this dark topic of child abuse from the standpoint of a Virgil Flowers, his wise-cracking, light-hearted detective? As Virgil closes in on this creepy cult of killers and pedophiles the tension is incredible — only Virgil’s laid-back approach could make it bearable.

John Sandford is the master of his craft. How long can he keep doing this? He has said recently that he might write only two or three more “Prey” books. That series is winding down. Sandford is 66 years old, he’s planning his next career chapter. In his MPR interview he said that it might be something “weird.”

Vick Mickunas interviews authors every Friday at 1:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 11 a.m. on WYSO-FM (91.3). For more information, visit www.wyso.org/BookNook.html. Contact him at vick@vickmickunas.com.

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