May 22, 2012

A sweet mystery - Sandford's Stolen Prey

Stolen Prey is John Sandford's 22nd book about Lucas Davenport, an investigator with Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. All of the books have 'Prey' in the title, which distinguishes them from his other series about Kidd, a software expert and thief, and about Virgil Flowers, an investigator who actually works for Lucas Davenport but largely operates on his own.

The Prey books are masterly expositions of how crimes get solved through police procedure. Davenport is extremely bright and intuitive, but Sandford shows time and again how he uses police resources to find the bad guys. He has a researcher, he has street-level snitches, he has friends in High Places. And he uses all of these to provide him with information that he synthesizes to arrive at his deductions and leaps of imagination. What's more, Sandford shows how cops talk to each other - exchanging information, building up their view of the case, sniping at each other or just bantering.

In Stolen Prey, a number of plot lines are set running. The book begins with Davenport being mugged, so one storyline deals with how he sets Virgil Flowers on their trail and what happens as he hunts the muggers down. This storyline acts as a comic counterpoint to the central plot, which deals with a mass murder of a wealthy family that seems to be involved in money-laundering - though how the financial trail works takes a while to puzzle out.

Sandford has a deceptively easy style. It's conversational and chatty, and he's able to move rapidly between Davenport's consciousness and that of other characters - usually the villains. What's more, he's very funny. In this extract, Weather is his wife and Letty his adopted daughter. Davenport has suffered a broken wrist in the mugging and they're looking at an x-ray:
“Ah, God,” Weather said. She peered at the digital image. “Yeah, it’s clear.” She pointed at a line on a wrist bone.
     The line looked like somebody had dropped a white hair on the screen. Lucas said, “It can’t be too bad. The bone’s about the size of—”
     “Never mind what it’s the size of,” Weather said. Lucas tended to compare the size of almost anything, either large or small, to his dick. “You’ll need a cast..."
When they got home, Letty said, “Whoa, that cast’s the size of—”
“Never mind,” Weather said.
Sandford's primary strategy is to write in scenes. Now this is commonplace in all writing - characters are put in situations where they have to talk to each other, or reflect, or act. The scene establishes the time and place and should further the action, moving us forward through the plot. Sandford takes this stylistic trope and breaks it up further, so that even scenes between people are often sectioned off by paragraph breaks while we absorb the point of the previous mini-scene:
“Yeah.” Del looked up in the sky. “It’s gonna rain.”
“We need it,” Lucas said. “Been hot for a long time. First cool day in a while.”
“Fall’s coming,” Del said.

THEY WENT back inside, where an agent named Bob Shaffer was talking to the patrolman.    When he saw Lucas, he said, “Maybe a break.”
Lucas nodded, once. “Anything more?”
“Romeo’s worked out a sequence. I think it’s probably right.”

ROMEO WAS a lab tech, a short man with a swarthy complexion, a fleshy nose, and a neat little soul patch that actually looked good ...
Most writers wouldn't break up the flow in this way - there's no real need for it in terms of plot exposition and no harm would be done to the story-telling if it was all contained in one paragraph. But Sandford has developed this stylistic tic over the years for specific reasons. The segmentation serves at least two purposes: first, it adds a great deal of pace to the narrative, because we always want to leap across the paragraph break to find out what happens next. As a result, the second effect is that we're totally hooked into the narrative because there's always the promise, after the break, of a different location, a different character, a different revelation in the plot. Our need for variety and interest leads us to make that leap. Dan Brown uses enormous revelations at the end of chapters to induce readers to turn the page. Sandford's tales don't contain such gigantic revelations, so chapter breaks don't need to perform that function. In Stolen Prey, individual chapters are long, but reading the book doesn't seem like a lengthy trawl to the next chapter-end - we're leaping between events, or between 'moments' within each event, and this gives us time to appreciate what's happening while anticipating what's going to happen next. It's like being constantly teased and poked rather than being hit over the head.

Sandford is also very good at two types of characterization - the bad guys and the good guys. The bad guys are usually rational from their own perspective. Sandford gives them considered back-stories, so we understand where they're coming from, and lets us see their paranoias or fears - if they have any. The three main bad guys in Stolen Prey are young Mexicans without much education and simply operating under instruction from a leader, Big Voice. But we see enough of their interaction to get a sense of who they are and why they do what they do. We might not sympathize, but we understand.

And Sandford is also very good with the cops. He shows the usual tensions between different sets of policemen - State and Feds and Mexican Federales - but captures the sense in which they know they have to work together. He's excellent at showing people at work, telling jokes, cracking wise, understanding the hierarchy that exists but still able to act relatively informally in pursuit of justice. Here, Rose Marie is the boss of Lucas and Del:
     “What are you doing out here?” Lucas asked. “Is there some kind of … involvement?” He meant political involvement.
     “Yeah, some marginal engagement,” she said. “Candace Brooks was going to run for something, sooner or later. Probably the state senate, next year, if Hoffman retires. The Brookses maxed out contributions for the major offices last few elections, and they’re strong out here in the local party … but, it’s not any big political thing.”
     “So it won’t make any difference if we find out that they were running a drug-money laundry, and giving cash to the local Democrats?”
     She shrugged, a political sophisticate: “It’d hurt for about four minutes. Then, not. But, you know, they were our people.” She meant Democrats.
     Del asked, “So what are you going to tell the media?”
     She looked him up and down, raised her eyebrows, and said, “Jesus, Del, you look like you just fell out of a boxcar.”
     “Professional dress,” Del said. “Around home, I wear Ralph Lauren chinos and Tiger Woods golf shirts.”
In the end, what makes the Prey books successful is tone. The plots are complex and interesting, the villains devious and occasionally nuts, the police work is thorough and interesting ... but you read on because you're captivated by Sandford's voice. It's intelligent, witty, cool and knowledgeable:
ANDREWS WAS a detective with St. Paul narcotics/vice. He was so large that he was hard to miss: six seven or six eight, maybe 240 pounds, with over-the-ears blond hair and gold-rimmed glasses. He looked like a tight end with a PhD in European literature. He dressed in dark sport coats over black golf shirts because, he thought, they made him look smaller. They didn’t; they made him look like a hole in space. His nose had been broken a couple of times, and maybe his teeth: he had an improbably even white smile.
What can writers learn from Sandford's books? To begin with, that style in crime fiction doesn't have to be overheated and excitable. Sandford lays out his plot clearly and he doesn't need dramatic conclusions to each scene or chapter to egg the reader on. Where Jo Nesbo uses concealment and dramatic revelation, Sandford uses steady investigation and clever intuition on the part of his investigators to reveal the secrets of the story.

Also, he doesn't build in artificial conflict between characters. There is conflict, between individual cops, between the bad guys, even within families ... but on the whole the characters rub along well enough. The situations they find themselves in are sufficiently conflictual without needing the aggravation provided by other people.

Finally, Sandford's books are enormously entertaining and satisfying. The reader floats along on a wave of intelligent good humour, noticing how Davenport operates, appreciating the witty dialogue, following a plot that is surprising and yet makes perfect sense. Like the others in the Prey series, Stolen Prey is a delight to read and can be swallowed whole, like a piece of delicious candy.

No comments:

Post a Comment