Between the Lines: In John Sandford’s thriller series, bad guys are ‘Prey’

Novelist John Sandford said his onetime journalism career “is critical to what I do.”
Novelist John Sandford said his onetime journalism career “is critical to what I do.” Beowulf Sheehan

John Sandford was sitting at his computer in his home office in Santa Fe, N.M, a bit frustrated, when his phone rang. What are you doing? he was asked.

“I’m sitting here trying to figure out the blankety-blank 12th chapter of the book I’m working on,” he said. “I’ve got a month to finish it, and it’s a little rough right now.”

So it goes even for a veteran such as Sandford, the New York Times best-selling thriller writer, former journalist and ardent fisherman, hunter and canoeist. He just published the 26th title in his “Prey” series, “Extreme Prey,” The Bee Book Club’s choice for April.

The series’ “star” is the streetwise, ruthless Lucas Davenport, a manhunter who has recently left his job as a special investigator for Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension – pushed out by “a combination of personality conflict and paperwork.”

The book opens with the mega-wealthy (computer games) Davenport renovating his lakeside vacation home when he gets a call from Minnesota governor Elmer Henderson, whom he “somewhat trusts.” Seems Henderson is on the campaign trail for the Democratic national presidential nomination, and wants Davenport to get to the bottom of a “troubling incident.”

“When I started the book, I had no concept of how stupid the (current) presidential campaign would become,” Sandford said. “I don’t know how you write something about campaigning when you’ve got this crew of candidates. I hope (readers) will give me a little rope. This is the first time in my life I’m actually losing sleep over (the November election).”

John Sandford is the pseudonym of John Camp, 72, who wrote for the Miami Herald and the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1980 and won it in 1986 for a series of articles about the farm crisis in the Midwest. Sandford left journalism for a career in fiction, which raises the question: Why?

“It was the money, and as it happened it worked out pretty well,” he said. “I really love journalism (even though) I was going to be a lawyer. When I won the Pulitzer, a friend told me, ‘You’ve got it made.’ But what I got was a $50-a-week raise. I thought, ‘I can’t afford to send my kids to college.’ 

Sandford was a “big fan” of the thriller genre, so he wrote one. It didn’t sell, but the second one did. “Then I wrote the first ‘Prey’ book (‘Rules of Prey,’ 1989) and was on my way.”

How does a well-decorated journalism career help inform his thrillers?

“It’s critical to what I do,” he said. “It put me on murder scenes and inside police stations, so I learned how cops talk and what the milieu is around them. I know what dead bodies lying on the street look like. I did a series of stories on hospitals, so I know about gunshot and knife wounds. So my stuff isn’t just made up, it’s an amalgamation of scenes I’ve actually seen, and movies.”

Sandford’s novels are “carefully engineered” for women readers, he said. Which makes sense, given the studies and surveys conducted by the likes of the National Endowment For the Arts and the Pew Research Center. They clearly show that women buy and read more books than men, especially fiction.

“So when I invented (Lucas Davenport), I thought, ‘What kind of guy will really appeal to women?’ He’s masculine and tough, but he likes poetry and fashion, so he’s got a soft side,” Sandford said. “He likes strong, interesting women, and he’s married to one (a surgeon named Weather). And I made him rich, turning him into sort of a movie star.”

Unlike the “police procedurals” by authors such as Michael Connelly, J.D. Robb and Jeffery Deaver, Sanford focuses on moving the action forward, not chronicling the day-to-day drudgery.

“I know a lot of cops, I look at their techniques, and they’ve given me a lot of advice about how to write things,” Sandford said. “But my stories are mostly about velocity, so I take shortcuts. Lucas operates out of his hip pocket, and that’s not realistic. A friend of mine was the police chief of St. Paul, and he used to say, ‘Lucas Davenport don’t write reports.’ 

Sandford’s written world is expansive, and includes the nine-tittle “Virgil Flowers” crossover series (“Escape Clause” is due in October), in which Davenport interacts with investigator Flowers, bringing their fictional worlds together. Also, he has the four-title “Kidd and LuEllen” series, the “Singular Menace” trilogy, three stand-alone novels and two books of nonfiction.

Last year he published a sci-fi thriller, “Saturn Run,” in collaboration with Bay Area photographic artist and essayist Ctein, who has degrees from Caltech in English and physics. “He visited Minneapolis, came to my house and we struck up a friendship,” Sandford recalled. “I like to read sci-fi, and we cooked up the idea for ‘Saturn Run.’ 

At the end of “Extreme Prey,” Davenport gets a job offer that will change the template of the series. “I’ll take him out of the Twin Cities to hunt down the worst guys in places like California, New Mexico, Florida and Illinois,” Sandford said. “I’m going back to a more basic story and a little uglier story. Which will take his family out of it. I won’t be able to get any romance into it, unless something terrible happens to his wife. Which is a possibility.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Bee Book Club

John Sandford’s appearance on Thursday, April 28, for The Bee Book Club is sold out. Those patrons holding tickets must bring them for admittance. All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education (NIE) program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.

Sandford’s new thriller, “Extreme Prey” (Putnam, $29, 406 pages) will be offered for 30 percent off the list price through Thursday, April 28, at these bookstores: In the Sacramento area at the four Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore. In Davis at Avid Reader and UC Davis Bookstore; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.

Barnes & Noble will be at the Bee Book Club event, selling “Extreme Prey” at 30 percent off, as well as some of John Sandford’s backlist and audiobooks at full price.

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