John Sandford, or – John Who?

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It’s a constant mystery that John Sandford’s name isn’t up there with Lee Child’s, or Harlan Coben’s, or even Ian Rankin’s.

A quick Google search doesn’t turn up one of his titles in the Top 20 best-selling crime writers of 2015. He doesn’t register in the Top 50 most popular authors according to the public. Nor does he appear in critics Top 50 choices for best crime writers of today, or in Amazon’s bestsellers.

In reality, he is in the Top 50, down in what we might call the 5th Division. Division One authors might sell 900,000+ hardbacks. In 2011, for instance, Sandford’s Stolen Prey sold getting on for 200,000 copies in hardback.

But let’s not get bogged down in all that. For crime aficionados, it’s enough to say: there isn’t a better author operating today than John Sanford.

The latest in his (so-far) 26-book Prey series, Gathering Prey is, for some reason, available on Kindle for 99p. Maybe it’s an attempt to push Sandford into the big leagues. Kindle owners should grab it while it’s still available. It’s still in hardback at £20 from Amazon. But you don’t really need to worry about that.

Go to book one, The Rules of Prey (1989) and get stuck into the Lucas Davenport story. Davenport is an unusual detective in that he’s highly functional. You never fear he’s going to slip into the bottle, or go off the rails in any way.

But he is different. (We like our detectives different, don’t we? But some of us are getting a bit fed up with them being drunk, or useless with women, or renegades who never get their superior’s support, or all three). In his spare time, back at book one, Lucas was a keen video gamer who went on to code and develop a piece of software that makes him very rich. He wears very expensive clothes and drives a Porsche.

Sandford does a convincing job of establishing why Davenport hasn’t retired. He just hates bad guys, and he loves to catch them, enjoys the intellectual exercise of it. He’s cultivated a network of street people to whom he can go for vital information.

From book one, and through the whole series, there’s also a story arc around his colleagues and his personal life. You really get to know this guy. And Sandford is a rare author in that, like Elmore Leonard, he cuts away all the narrative fat.

Here’s a single sentence from Gathering Prey that many authors would have turned into a whole chapter, or at least three pages of exposition: “Pilate and the disciples got out of South Dakota in a hurry, traveling in an eight-vehicle caravan spaced out over a mile or two, twelve men, seven women, leaving Sturgis and the motorcycle rally in the dust.” 

And if none of that has convinced you to make a start, let me direct you to Winter Prey from 1993. Talk about a writer at the top of his game: throughout the book you are there, in the Wisconsin woods, in a snowbound whiteout, feeling claustrophobic along with the neighbouring community where (naturally) a vicious killer is abroad. If you can read Winter Prey and then not want to devour Sandford’s entire oeuvre, I have nothing left to say to you.

John Sandford

But if you make the start, and you’re hooked, and you’re a greedy reader, not only are there 26 Prey books to feast on: there are also nine Virgil Flowers books (Flowers being a recurring character in the Prey series) which are unputdownable, page-turning and addictive; and four Joe Kidd novels.

Kidd and his sidekick LuEllen are computer whizzes and criminal burglars, but Sandford keeps you on-side because their crimes are usually against really bad people. For Sandford fans, the lack of any more Kidd books is a sadness, but they didn’t sell so well, and Lucas Davenport took over.

But don’t let that discourage you. Dig into Kidd, and also the one-off The Night Crew which, again, us fans hoped would become a series. There you go – 40 books, more than highly recommended. Should keep you busy for a while.

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