It sometimes seemed to him that there was an invisible hand behind it all, and it wasn’t a beneficent hand. Evil in the world.
John Sandford’s twentieth novel in the wonderful chronicles of Lucas Davenport is called Storm Prey. In a multitude of ways, it’s an extraordinary extension of this superb series.
The novel opens with a vicious robbery. A gang of inept virulent thieves are incited and aided by a cocaine-addicted psychopathic doctor to steal a major Minneapolis hospital’s entire supply of powerful narcotics and other readily saleable pharmaceuticals. Another of Sandford’s ingenious plotting constructs.
In the course of the robbery, one of the addled thieves kicks the pharmacy’s elderly attendant in his kidneys, stomps him savagely over and over again. He does this because – even though he’s a sociopath, he needs to formulate a reason for his intentions – the victim tried covertly to dial 911 on his mobile phone. The petty thief’s brutal battery of the brave old man produces mortal injuries, and transforms an ugly larceny into murder.
There ensues a complication that warrants and triggers the narrative. During their getaway from their otherwise perfect crime, one of the gang’s leaders is observed as he careens their van out of the hospital’s parking garage. Their inadvertent, initially unaware eyewitness is Dr. Weather Karkinnen, an eminent surgeon who’s married to Lucas Davenport, the Prey series’ principal figure, an epically intelligent, skillful, and ferocious investigator for the State of Minnesota. The crooks decide they need to kill Weather so she can’t expose and testify against them.
Big mistake. No one should mess with Weather. For sure no one should mess with Lucas and his devotedly loyal, practiced, proficient, cheerfully rough friendship circle of fellow cops. Especially when Weather is fighting with all her dazzling gifts of skill and spirit to save the lives of two tiny babies joined helplessly at the head.
The criminals’ hunt for Weather and Lucas’s reciprocal hunt for them makes a Grand Guignol of glorious plot, wacky personalities, and astringent atmospherics. Fabulous tours de force of writing, too. Hilarious street riffs. Haunting evocations of psychotics’ thought, cops’ cogitation, surgeons’ craft and mentation. This work of authoring is complex, knowledgeable, fluent, yet seemingly intuitive and effortless. Not a trope nor a formula, but an ascendant artist’s expert instinction.
John Sandford is a master, and he knows it. His only peer, albeit in a different medium, is Kobe Bryant. Probably they’re not aware of one another. But across their dissimilar fields they share an absoluteness of gift and grace, consummate prowess with a predefined though not confining game, and the uncommon discipline of willing themselves continuously to challenge and grow their extraordinary powers.
We expect inspired storytelling and virtuoso writing from Sandford. His ability time after time to fulfill our expectations no longer surprises, but it’s always elating to journey with him on his madcap voyages. This time he far surpasses what we’ve learned to expect, and moves his distinguished series into a new realm of sophistication and inquiry.
Storm Prey is a great read. It’s also a launch. Sandford moves us away from the turbulent thrills of crime, detection, pursuit, and capture. The novel primarily roots itself in quietly profound explorations of the cognitions and consciousness of characters. Characters disturbed and healthy, barbaric and heroic, destructive and generative, vile and noble, moronic and august – all manner of persons. The book delicately but deeply explores the methods and courses of identity, the motives and modalities of behavior, and most importantly, the extreme and extremely dangerous gulf in our society between relative goodness and absolute evil.
In its twentieth iteration, Sandford has created an entirely new and exceptionally interesting kind of Prey novel.
Sandford always has been intrigued by the nature, origins, and meanings of wickedness. In this superlative work, he investigates three seemingly discrete but decisively interrelated energies: evil, vacancy, and randomness.
In her historic work on Nazism, Hannah Arendt famously characterized evil as a banality. Storm Prey develops many villains. All are creatures of bathos: utterly empty of coherent affect, reason, and objective. Animate voids. Yet from their broad and general vacuity emanates ghastly violence, appalling cruelty, immense destructive power. Absurd but mighty antimatter energy.
Vacancy can generate energy, but it has no ethos. The criminals in this book have no distinguishing sentiment other than anger, no goals or aims, no moral temperament, no explicit beliefs. Their void causes them to crave, sporadically. They want, from time to time, appetitive relief. Drugs, food, sex, firearms, vehicles. When they want, they take. Their motives are nonspecific, their actions cavalier. They’re passionless and, essentially, purposeless persons. They’re incarnations of emptiness. Manifestations of nothingness, and creators of it. They exploit and empty what better women and men build.
Most of these nasty felons are stupid. Their stupidity breeds chaos and spawns suffering, because they lack the sheer commonsense to regulate and restrain their aimless impulses. They just lash out, seize what they sort of want, injure or kill wantonly, cause enormous harm, engender widespread suffering.
Consider Mikey, the robber who improvisationally murders the harmless elderly man at the hospital:
“You think Mikey meant to kill that man?” Honey Bee asked.
“No way,” Joe Mack said. “He’s just … dumb.”
Honey Bee nodded. Mikey was dumb. And violent. Unlike Joe Mack, who was just dumb. Mikey might not have meant to kill the old man, but he probably enjoyed it. Give him a month or two, he’d be bragging it around.
Much later, Joe tells Lucas:
“The whole problem was, we’re stupid people. That’s what caused all this trouble… Mikey kickin’ that guy? Just stupid… I only ran away from you guys because I’m stupid. I know that. Everybody knows that.”
Other of the book’s felons, though, are decidedly intelligent. Their impact accordingly is far worse. Their psyches and purposes may be pathological. However, they have the mental power to preserve themselves by being deliberative, shrewd, cunning. They take pleasure from the misery they produce, and they deploy their considerable intellect to repeat and expand their diseased gratifications.
Two of the malefactors, Dr. Alain Barakat and Mr. Caprice Marlon Garner [“Cappy” – he’s named after a mundane model of a Chevrolet automobile] are conspicuously intelligent. They’re also insane. Crazy with horrid aberrant emptiness:
Barakat’s attention had turned toward Cappy. “You as dumb as the Macks?”
“Hope not,” Cappy said. His voice was mild, and he smiled, the corners of his mouth turning up. His eyes were dead as planks.
“How’d you do that? Get him to talk?”
Barakat spread his hands. “I’m a doctor. I have scalpels.”
“A thrill here. He’d done that. He’d caused this chaos.”
The intelligent monsters may be smarter than the dumb editions. But their reasoning is demented; a function of, if anything rational, colossal self-entitlement. For example:
- Cappy becomes incensed with Weather because she has the effrontery to fight back against his initial attempt at her murder. He feels ravaged with indignation over “the lack of respect” she’s displayed toward him by not passively accepting the assassination for which he contracted. “What kind of bitch is that … I ought to kill the bitch for free, after that.”
- Barakat frames his copious and awful villainies as a righteous remedy for his father’s refusal to enrich him sufficiently.
- Cappy and Barakat develop a species of mutual admiration, even a vestige of friendship. But what they recognize and esteem in one another are certain shared aspects of insanity and nihilism: absolute coldness, chronic drug dependency, evolving necrophilia, thoroughly evolved sadism. This is what they term smartness and strength.
- After a singularly savage murder, Barakat’s sole response reaction, cocaine induced, is: “I would like a doughnut.”
Why does Sandford write about such demons? Why does an author of such abundant gifts devote them to so unworthy a galaxy of protagonists?
I think there are two reasons. It’s important to acknowledge and analyze evil of this sort, because it’s authentic, altogether too prevalent, and horrifically active in our nation and throughout the world. It’s also important to reject, as Sandford unequivocally and powerfully does, the naïve and jejune claims in our culture that such persons warrant understanding, sympathy, and gently corrective treatment. Ought sensible societies empathize with and strive to protect the rights of fiends who wreak untold suffering and enjoy it?
I’ll tell you what. That wasn’t done by a nice guy. He looked right into her eyes and choked the life out of her.
“Were her eyes open?”
“Oh, yeah, right until she died,” Cappy said. “They were, like, huge. Like bubbles.”
Barakat cleared his throat and then said, “Makes me hard.”
“Yeah, me too, sometimes,” Cappy said.
In Storm Prey as in life, a small number of villainous beings create widespread hazard, tragedy, and anguish, and they derive lunatic satisfaction from doing so. This is what they want and like. Sandford persuasively insists such persons deserve not our empathy, but detection and capture by resourceful and intrepid police officers, secure and permanent confinement, and, if necessary, execution by means legal or not.
Sandford is particularly affected by the imperiling chaos of coincidence, circumstance, arbitrariness, unpredictability, what Lucas calls “pure chance.”
The contingencies of randomness are as terrifying in the novel as evil itself. “Pure chance” can affect anyone at any time, the good and the wicked alike. It can’t be predicted, predicated, planned for, prevented, protected against, or policed. Its effects can be horrendous: physical maiming, psychological impairment, death. It can leave in its wake swirling circles and centrifugal cycles of victimization: grieving spouses, children, parents, friends; vitiated institutions and functions; intimations of foulness and violation that defy our most cherished paradigms of commonalty, connection, and community.
Often “pure chance” links itself directly with evil. When wicked persons enact their inane but dreadful vacuous malice, innocent people who happen to be in the line of fire lose not just their possessions but frequently their wellbeing and sometimes their lives. Rounds of misery ensue. Loved ones mourn forever. Children are orphaned. Valuable organizations are weakened. Powers that work for the good are irrevocably lost: surgeon’s skills; detectives insight and courage; charities’ altruism, kindness, and munificence. All for the sake of a few drifting villains’ scabrous impetuosity and insatiable malignant hunger.
This is a central theme of Storm Prey, and it infuriates Sandford and his hero. Here is Lucas thinking about the murder of a woman who happens to cross paths with Joe Mack at a wrong moment:
The anger hit him again. Not necessary: a woman dead because of nothing.
Janis [Joplin’s song, “Me and Bobby McGee”] echoed in his head as he climbed into his car, and he thought: No. Not right. Dead is just another word for nothing left to lose.
It sometimes seemed to him that there was an invisible hand behind it all, and it wasn’t a beneficent hand. Evil in the world…”
Lucas’ anger intensifies throughout the novel. Its source is local and specific. He feels infuriated by a single mother’s gratuitous death at an early age, and by the lifelong agony her murder will cause her two young daughters. But his anger also is metaphysical. This extremely tough man feels angry in a teleological regard.
Raised a Catholic, become an agnostic, Lucas demands in his unvoiced but immensely thoughtful and characteristically caring constitution to understand what manner of God could permit the advent and activity of crazies, the torture and perishing of the abjectly innocent, the desolation of the innocents’ loved ones, friends, and colleagues. The wasting of civilization.
The consistency and growing intensity with which Sandford’s hero addresses this theological subject suggests that it will become an ever more significant theme in the series’ future entries.
Let us hope so. This fine writer, his fascinating hero, his compelling universe of characters, situations, and stories, will make a unique and potent framework for exploring the bewildering, insoluble, painful mystery of human dichotomy and its relation, if any, to the godhead.
Villainy and violence. The hazards of chance. The baffling will or deliberate absence of God, if there be a God. Storm Prey doesn’t sound like fun.
It is, though. It’s such good fun to read, because the book’s essence is love, deep love, for life and living. For people and their foibles. For knowledge and knowing. For doctors as much as detectives, and for doctoring as much as detecting. For marriages, making families, holding them together, building houses, fixing them, keeping hospitals intact, healing, saving.
Storm Prey radiates with love of life. Sandford’s writing flowers repeatedly with beautiful descriptions of meteorology and landscapes, uproarious dialogues, eruptions of ebullient humor, sweet hymns to Minnesota and Minnesotans, lovely effusions of moment and mood, touching ruminations about our species’ traits, dignities, desires, and pleasures. Mesmerizing reflections about our experience and consciousness, our triumphs and tribulations.
Often his life-affirming moods and darksome subject matters conjoin, and he crafts gorgeous sentences that strikingly encompass his full range of wisdom and expertise. As when Lucas tells Weather to concentrate on saving the babies whom “pure chance” has placed in her care: “You do the surgery, we’ll do the bodyguarding.” And, later, Weather thinks of the several dedicated police officers who watch over her: “Guys with guns, taking care of [me].”
Many creatures in this book are iniquitous, and they commit terrible deeds for no good reason. But most of the book’s characters are endearing and enduring women and men who take care of one another, and who cherish and preserve the delicate experiment of human society. From one point of view, Storm Prey’s story, as a detective comments, is “pretty awful.” From another – the author’s – it’s positive and optimistic. Certainly this is what the story’s heroine concludes: “‘As for me, I’m going to get pregnant again,’ Weather said.”
Storm Prey is a feat of authorship. It’s also a feat of confidence and courage. It requires rare certitude and daring to radically expand a proven bestselling recipe and tamper with the very essence of a lucrative franchise.
John Sandford always has possessed formidable gifts of mind and art. He’s freed magic here. Serious, deep, puissant magic.
20 brilliant Lucas Davenport novels. I can’t wait for the next one.