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Masterpiece: The Literature of John Sandford

Wicked Prey
by John Sandford
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (May, 2009)

The Literature of John Sandford

The essential American soul is hard, stoic, isolate, and a killer.
– D.H. Lawrence

Western civilizations distinguish rigorously between what we usually term serious or high art, such as literary novels, poetry, and drama, classical painting and sculpture, classical music, etc., and low entertainment: populist arts such as films, television programs, musicals, commercial songs, and best-selling novels.

This distinction probably always has existed. It makes a sort of sense, for undoubtedly there are irreconcilable conflicts between the cognitions, conventions, and craft of serious artistic expression and the requirements of mass commerce. As Charlton Heston once said: “The trouble with movies as a business is that it’s an art, and the trouble with movies as art is that it’s a business.”

This tension notwithstanding, it surely is the case in all societies that artists who attract pervasive attention and persisting affection must exhibit qualities of awareness and expression that are substantive, important, and defining. There can be no doubt, for example, that Elvis Presley, at least three of the Beatles, and Bob Dylan are artists of genius. Their lives and work will matter to students of history for many generations, perhaps centuries. The biographies and creation of such high artists as Philip Glass or Harold Pinter or Susan Sontag probably will not.

In many modern western nations, especially the United States and England, there has evolved a venerable tradition in populist commercial culture of vastly successful yet profoundly thoughtful, skillful, and pleasurable detective fiction crafted as a sequence, framed by a central master police officer, and supported by a company of recurring characters who operate in the stories as friends and coadjutors, engaged in pursuit of a sinister population of repugnant but intriguing villains.

Works of this kind focus putatively on solving and punishing complex, often awful crimes. Their appeal, however, inheres primarily in the manner in which the stories define and develop their heroic detective; and the delicate but intensely felt and artfully advanced analyses of our country, our culture, and our consciousness.

In the United States several major authors have worked in this genre. Paramount among them, in my opinion, are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, Elmore Leonard, and, most recently, John Sandford.

* * *

John Sandford is a nom de plume chosen by John Roswell Camp. The name derives from that of his maternal grandmother, and presumably pays homage to her memory. Sandford began his career as a journalist in Minnesota. He achieved eminence in the profession, often draws upon it in his fiction for context and contour, and on occasion still practices it.

Sandford has created several impressive series. His most successful and significant novels chronicle the work and ever more complicated and fulfilled life of a brilliant, fierce, and multifaceted detective called Lucas Davenport. Wicked Prey is the nineteenth volume in the series. [The twentieth, Storm Prey, will be published in May, 2010.]

In Wicked Prey, Lucas operates in his recently elevated capacity as a special investigator for Minnesota, reporting to the state’s principal police official, its governor, and the governor’s primary political counselor. The counselor assigns him to investigate as tactfully as possible a string of ingeniously conceived, inordinately feral robberies. A small gang of accomplished, shrewd, prudent, surpassingly prepared thieves is stealing very large sums of cash from political operatives who have come to Minneapolis to deliver illicit payoffs for the Republican Party at its 2008 Presidential Convention. The gang assaults and murders civilians both by policy and gratuitously; and they frequently kill cops. Lucas simultaneously must investigate for the Secret Service the possibility that a dimwitted rightwing redneck may be planning to assassinate John McCain or Sarah Palin. And, as the narrative develops, he learns that he must protect his fourteen-year-old ward, soon to become his adopted daughter, from the vengeful predation of a heinous but hilarious psychotic lifelong criminal whom in a previous volume he has policed and appropriately brutalized.

Sandford’s fiction always is driven by stories and characters. His stories are Gordian, captivating, and, despite his remarkable prolificacy, never formulaic or repetitive. His characters are singular, diverse, enthralling, and epically contemporary.

Wicked Prey is elaborately plotted. The story is fascinating. Its multiple strands are discrete and distinctive, yet they interconnect with one another in increasingly daedal and mutually vitalizing ways.

The plot is marvelously populated. The characters, some heroic, some mundane, some villainous, are unique, ebulliently alive, propelled by self-awareness and self-interest but intricately interrelated and cross-pollinating. Individually and together, they inadvertently illuminate the nature of our nation and social order at this most perplexing, dissociative, impassioned time.

The thought processes, energies, and skills with which Lucas and his colleagues discover, track, and ultimately dispatch the criminals are exceptionally competent and interesting. So are the criminals’. The novel’s wicked persons, female and male, are professionally accomplished, unreservedly committed, thoroughly guileful, deeply evil, and devoid, like all of Sandford’s sinners, of fear, hesitation, or remorse.

The criminals’ motivations are never rarefied, empathized with, ratified, or forgiven. We hear nothing in Wicked Prey about corrosive childhoods, imperfect parenting, or social injustices. The bad persons in this book are purely, volitionally, and exuberantly bad. Some want money, and perhaps versions of ontological power or liberty. Some want drugs and, in one instance, reprisal.

What they want and why they want it barely matter. These malefactors are professionals. Their consciousness and conduct are those of career. Some but not all are adept at what they do. They will keep right on doing it, and will impose correlative mayhem and suffering upon civilization and the civilian population of Minnesota until Lucas, his colleagues, or other forces of normative society make them stop it – either by incarcerating them or killing them.

This is a constant in Sandford’s fiction. Criminals in his novels rarely compel authorial sympathy, and they almost never convert to more conventional and correct ways of being. They are elements of existence that need to be discerned, detected, and defeated.

The intelligence and depth with which Sandford delineates and studies his villains shows us how multiple, dangerous, and probably irreconcilable are the gulfs between varieties of human experience. It is common in populist fictions to associate divergent populations, their awareness, and their activities with differing economic statuses and their attendant identity structures. Sandford refuses assent to this formula. He is far more drawn to the belief that all of us choose our mentality or perhaps autonomically receive it at birth, and live as we do because it pleasures us. Some people wish to construct lives of constructive normalcy: existences of structure, fealty, salubrious instinction. Others want to be wanton, wild – wicked. This is their fulfillment, and it comprises their meaning.

Unfortunately, the wicked ones in Wicked Prey prefer to exist by preying upon those who are more conventionally established and empowered. They live by seizing more decent people’s goods and violating their comforts, their dignity, and, often, their safety. The wicked ones do not seek to be understood or compassionated. Nor do they want to be cured. They are terrible, and they like being terrible. They need to be captured or killed by one who comprehends them, loathes them, and is superior to them in cunning, strength, and purity.

Lucas Davenport is just the man for the job. He’s a magnificent protector: supremely intelligent, an avid hunter, a proficient hand-to-hand fighter, a dead shot, and, to boot, a fine fellow. He’s tall, strong, handsome. An accomplished athlete. A wildly successful technology entrepreneur, independently wealthy. Without pretension, he’s a book collector and a clotheshorse. He owns a Porsche, drives it much too fast, and plunks a police light on its roof when he needs to move dangerously fast. He quietly loves poetry and fishing, and more loudly is an aficionado of rock music. He’s broadly capable. He designs houses, repairs machines, is good with tools, handles equipment, is expert with guns and ordnance. He has an easy male confidence that comes from knowing that he can do most things well, and from realizing without arrogance that almost all women and most men like him a lot.

They should like him. Lucas is true, he’s trustworthy, and volume by volume he’s developing into an ever more compelling person. After a multitude of romances, he’s created enduring love with his wife, a surgeon his equal or superior in prowess and complexity. He’s found love with their child, and with his daughter from an earlier relationship, and with his roguish ward, whom he and his wife legally adopt in Wicked Prey. He’s achieved fulfillment with both his casual friends and a repertory company of peers in the police world with whom he’s bonded. He’s building purpose and peace in his work, and seems to be finally conquering his long struggle with clinical depression. He’s quick-witted, immensely talented, and content with life in ways that are cogent and contagious.

He’s a masterpiece: the most interesting and likable fictional American detective since Travis McGee. He contradicts D.H. Lawrence’s celebrated assertion that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” Lucas stands beyond this archetype and paradigm. He’s emotional, social, evolutional, astute, and very humorous.

As is John Sandford’s wonderful writing. Sandford has created easy fluent mastery, and he’s growing it by leaps and bounds with every book he publishes:

Lucas Davenport rolled in his Porsche through the August countryside, green and tan, corn and beans, the blue oats falling in front of the John Deeres, weeping willows hanging over the banks of black-water ponds, yellow cornflowers climbing on the sides of the road-cuts, Wisconsin farms with U-Pick signs hung out on the driveways, Dutch Belted cows and golden horses and red barns, Lucas’ arms prickling from sunburn … One of the finest summers of his life.

Two clerks were working the counter: a straw-headed kid, pale and thin, with Grand Theft Auto eyes; and a soft round Indian woman with a dot on her forehead.

[Brutus Cohn] liked it all: money, women, gambling, cocaine and reefer and Saturday night fights in the gravel parking lots outside country roadhouses, with frogs croaking from the roadside ditches and the fireflies blinking out over the farm fields.

“What are you going to do?” Del asked. “First thing, right at the crack of dawn tomorrow, soon as the TV people wakeup, I’m gonna have a big-mother press conference,” Lucas said. “I’m gonna paper the country with pictures of Cohn and this chick. Then, we’re gonna find them and kill them.” “Sounds like a plan,” Del said.

 They all sat for a minute, then Jenkins said: “What do you think we ought to get for Del’s kid? It’s gonna be a boy, right? Something blue?” “It’s Del’s kid; you gonna get him a blue gun?” Shrake asked.

Ranch woke in the beanbag chair. He was used to the disappearance of large parts of his life. Sometimes, he passed out at ten o’clock in the morning, and when he woke up, it was nine o’clock in the morning – some other morning. At first, the time changes were disorienting, but over the course of a couple of years, he got used to it. He simply gave up on time – now life was daytime and nighttime, strung along like beads on a string, and the minute, hour, and date were irrelevant.

“… I don’t think cops should kill people. I mean, murder people. People get trials, they get lawyers.” Letty [Lucas’s ward] sighed. “Let me think about it for a couple days. I’m so confused.” A little song and dance, she was thinking as she spoke: a little song and dance because Jennifer Carey was no longer to be trusted. I don’t think cops should kill people. Bullshit, Letty thought.

Wicked Prey is a great book by a great writer. I can’t explain why Sandford receives so little critical acclaim. I think it may be because he’s utterly disinterested in the designs, affectations, and self-promotion of high art.

For many years, Clint Eastwood was similarly neglected. Sanford reminds me strongly of Eastwood. Like Eastwood, he possesses quiet calm constant expertise. Stunning but subtle aptitude. Extraordinary sociability and decency – leavened comfortably, somehow, with equally extraordinary capacities for violence, self-reliance, and aloneness.

Despite his long history of popular success, the world has not yet found John Sandford. His time, like Clint Eastwood’s, will come. His gifts, subjects, concerns, and tireless body of work mandate and make inevitable the broad and general fondness and esteem he long ago should have attained.