Fiction Review

“Rules of Prey” by John Sandford

Sandford, John. Rules of Prey  (1989).  In John Sandford: Three Complete Novels
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 725 pages, hardcover
ISBN 0-399-14007-7

In this introductory novel Minneapolis homicide detective Lucas Davenport, creator of computer games in his spare time, faces an intelligent serial killer who leaves behind messages stating his rules for avoiding detection. As the chase escalates, the killer, known as maddog, tries to outwit Davenport by doing something other than what Davenport will expect him to do.  At the same time Davenport pursues maddog by thinking like a computer gamer.

Davenport’s income from computer games allows him to drive a Porsche, but his personal life is a mess. When his girlfriend, newspaper reporter Jennifer Carey, tells him she’s pregnant, Davenport immediately says they should get married. But Jennifer refuses; she knows that Lucas is not cut out for marriage and traditional family life. Davenport wastes little time in proving Jennifer correct.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

Author News Fiction

John Sandford: Introductory Notes

John Sandford is the pseudonym of author and journalist John Camp, who won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1986 and the Distinguished Writing Award of the American Society of Newspaper Editors for 1985.

Camp was born in 1944 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He attended the University of Iowa, where he received a bachelor’s degree in American Studies in 1966 and a master’s degree in journalism in 1971. After graduating from college in 1966, Camp spent two years in the Army, including service in Korea. He then worked as a reporter in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, before returning to the University of Iowa for his master’s degree. He later worked at newspapers in Miami and St. Paul.

Camp’s many interests include archaeology, outdoor sports (hunting, fishing, canoeing, and skiing), golf, and reading history. He now has homes in Lakeland Shores, Minnesota, and Pasadena, California. 

For more information, see Sandford’s web site.

When Camp’s first two novels, Rules of Prey and The Fool’s Run, were scheduled to be published just three months apart in 1989, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, publisher of Rules of Prey, asked him to use a pseudonym. He chose the name Sandford after his great grandfather, who had fought in the Civil War. 

Fiction Review

“Crack Down” by Val McDermid

McDermid, Val. Crack Down (1994)
Harper, 246 pages, $4.99 paperback  
ISBN 0 06 104394 X

British private investigator Kate Brannigan is one half of the firm Mortensen and Brannigan, which specializes in white collar crime, particularly financial and computer fraud.  The book opens with Kate and her boyfriend, freelance rock journalist Richard Barclay, posing as a newly married couple. They purchase a new sportscar as part of Kate’s investigation into financing fraud. Of course they’re supposed to turn the car back over to one of the company’s executives, but Richard just can’t resist driving it first.  And, of course, the car is stolen.

A few days later Richard sees the stolen car on the street and “repossesses” it. When the police stop Richard, they discover two kilos of crack cocaine in the car’s trunk. Convinced that they’ve cracked the area’s drug ring, they throw Richard into jail and have no interest in investigating further. It’s up to Kate to find out what’s going on before Richard is put away for a very, very long time. And she only has three days.

I usually don’t like mysteries set in the U.K., probably because I’m afraid I’m missing something truly important whenever the author uses an idiom or piece of slang that I don’t understand—something like “all Broderick had to do was sit back and wait till the dealers finally got round to admitting they’d flogged some metal. Then it would be gumshields time in the car showrooms” (p. 13). However, it’s impossible not to take to Kate Brannigan right away. How can you not like somebody who says, “He’s got flaming red curls as tight as a pensioner’s perm and a face like a sad clown. He’d have no chance in an identity parade unless the cops brought in a busload of Ronald McDonalds” (p. 68).

McDermid’s (and Brannigan’s) sense of humor, several well-developed minor characters, and a plot that’s complex without being convoluted make this novel a delightful read.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“M” is for Malice by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. “M” is for Malice (1996)
Henry Holt and Company, 300 pages, $25.00 hardcover  
ISBN 0 8050 3637 7

“M” is for melancholy, the mood in which we find Kinsey Millhone at the beginning of this book:

Ah, January. The holidays had left me feeling restless and the advent of the new year generated one of those lengthy internal discussions about the meaning of life. I usually don’t pay much attention to the passing of time, but this year, for some reason, I was taking a good hard look at myself. Who was I, really, in the scheme of things, and what did it all add up to?… For the last ten years, I’ve made a living as a private investigator. Some days I see myself (nobly, I’ll admit) battling against evil in the struggle for law and order. Other days, I concede that the dark forces are gaining ground. (p. 2)

However, things are not bad enough to wipe out Kinsey’s characteristic humor, as we see when she decides to scrub her office:  “My method of coping with depression is to take on chores so obnoxious and disgusting that reality seems pleasant by comparison” (p. 90).

But reality is not pleasant. When the patriarch of Malek Construction, one of the big three in California construction, dies, his family hires Kinsey Millhone to find Guy Malek, who disappeared eighteen years earlier. The remaining three Malek brothers are not eager to split the $40 million company a fourth way, but they must find Guy (or prove that he’s dead) to settle the estate.

Finding Guy Malek proves to be easy. When Kinsey tells him she’s been hired to locate him, Guy thinks that his family has finally come looking for him just because they want him back. Kinsey observes, “I was struck by the fact that his circumstances were oddly reminiscent of mine, both of us trying to assimilate fractured family connections.  At least he welcomed his, though he’d misunderstood the purpose of my visit” (p. 61).

The Malek brothers do not welcome the long-lost Guy back. As Kinsey digs under the surface of this fractured family’s dynamics, she continues to brood over the meaning of family and personal relationships. Her brooding deepens with the sudden return of Robert Deitz, a private investigator who has worked as her bodyguard and with whom she had a brief affair. A little over two years earlier Deitz left for Germany to run antiterrorist training exercises for overseas U.S. military bases.  Now Kinsey is miffed that he thinks he can just waltz back into her life:  “This time he didn’t ask if I was mad.  This was good because, in truth, I was furious.  Under the fury was the old familiar pain.  Why does everyone end up leaving me?  What did I ever do to them?” (p. 88). 

Eventually Kinsey and Deitz do reconnect: 

I looked away from him, thinking about the fearful risks of intimacy, the potential for loss, the tender pain implicit in any bond between two creatures—human or beast, what difference did it make? In me, the instinct for survival and the need for love had been at war for years. My caution was like a wall I’d built to keep me safe. But safety is an illusion and the danger of feeling too much is no worse than the danger of being numb. (pp. 108 109)

Kinsey has been wrestling with the meaning of family ever since she discovered her own long-lost relatives in “J” is for Judgment. In the epilogue of “M” is for Malice, Kinsey reaches closure when Guy Malek comes to her in a dream:

In the end, I set him free, not in sorrow, but in love. It wasn’t for me. It was something I did for him. When I woke, I knew that he was truly gone. The tears I wept for him then were the same tears I’d wept for everyone I’d ever loved. My parents, my aunt. I had never said good bye to them, either, but it was time to take care of it (p. 300)

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“L” is for Lawless by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. “L” is for Lawless  (1995) 
Holt, 290 pages, $24.00 hardcover
ISBN  0-8050-1937-5

Many critics called “K” is for Killer Grafton’s darkest, most disturbing novel.  Grafton herself may have felt the same way, because  “L” is for Lawless seems to be a concerted attempt at humor.

The novel opens in comical circumstances:  Henry Pitts, Kinsey’s landlord, and his four siblings, whose ages range from Henry’s 85 to Charlie’s 93, are preparing for the wedding of older brother William to Rosie (age 70), owner of the neighborhood tavern.  “With William pushing eighty-eight, the phrase `until death do us part’ was statistically more significant for them than for most.”  The four Pitts brothers, collectively known as “the boys,” and sister Nell provide a humorous picture of long-term sibling rivalry.

Amidst the wedding preparations, Henry asks Kinsey—who’s scheduled to be a bridesmaid—if she’d mind helping out a neighborhood family having trouble collecting death benefits from the Veterans Administration.  It’s her involvement with this family that initiates the cross-country chase of the book’s mystery, but not before Kinsey has a chance to showcase her wit:

Somehow in my profession I seem to spend a lot of time in kitchens looking on while men make sandwiches, and I can state categorically, they do it better than women. Men are fearless. They have no interest in nutrition and seldom study the list of chemicals provided on the package. I’ve never seen a man cut the crusts off the bread or worry about the aesthetics of the “presentation.” Forget the sprig of parsley and the radish rosette. With men, it’s strictly a grunt-and-munch operation. (p. 36)

As a child I was raised with the same kind of white bread . . . you could roll it into little pellets and flick them across the table at your aunt when she wasn’t looking. If one of these bread boogers landed in her hair, she would slap at it, irritated, thinking it was a fly. (pp. 36-37)

Another lighter touch in this novel is that the mystery doesn’t involve a murder, although Kinsey ends up in some dangerous situations during her Bonnie-and-Clyde trip across country. The humor does diminish about midway through the book when the chase’s high stakes become obvious.  Nonetheless, Kinsey manages to keep her wits—and her wit—about her:

Now you see? This is the beauty of keeping up those skills. In a crisis situation, I had only to open my mouth and a fib flopped out. An unpracticed liar can’t always rise to the occasion like I can. (p. 110)

During her escapades Kinsey has time to think about family—her own, the Pitts’s, the father-daughter-grandmother trio she ends up with in Louisville.  Like ancient comedies, the novel ends with the marriage of William and Rosie, and with Kinsey reunited with the family she belongs with.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Choke” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Choke (1995)  
Harper Collins, 280 pages, $23.00 hardcover 
ISBN  0-06-017667-9

Twenty some years ago Chuck Chandler choked.  Right on Centre Court at Wimbledon.  He squandered three match points, then went on to lose the most prestigious championship in tennis.

It’s 1995 when we next see Chuck, who has just arrived in Key West from Palm Beach, Florida, aboard his boat Choke.  He’s a washed-up has-been (a never-was, actually) who’s moved from job to job because of an incurable appetite for other men’s wives.  In Key West he begins a new job as a tennis instructor and meets wealthy Harry Carras and his wife, Clare, who looks about 30 years younger than her husband.  In no time Chuck and Clare are in the sack.  

Enter Tommy Sculley, a former New York City policeman who’s retired to an easier beat in Key West.  Tommy is immediately suspicious about Harry’s identity.  When Harry turns up dead, Chuck quickly becomes the prime suspect.   But Tommy and his partner Daryl (nephew of the Key West police chief) continue to investigate because Tommy’s intuition tells him Chuck isn’t guilty. 

The denouement of this mystery stretches credulity a bit, but by that time we’re so interested in these characters and their stories that the stretch is easy to make.

And, at the crucial point of the climax, Chuck Chandler doesn’t choke.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“K” is for Killer by Sue Grafton

Grafton, Sue. “K” is for Killer  (1994)
Holt, 285 pages, $22.95 hardcover
ISBN  0-8050-1936-7

Janice Kepler is having trouble coping with her daughter’s death.  She’s joined a support group but finds it little comfort.  One night she leaves the group meeting early and sees a light on in the office of Millhone Investigations. Janice explains to Kinsey Millhone that police have uncovered no motive and no leads in the case since her daughter’s badly decomposed body was found ten months earlier:  “Whoever did this, I want him punished.  I want this laid to rest . . . I’m sick and tired of talk. It gets nowhere.”

So Kinsey begins her investigation into the death—and life—of the beautiful, headstrong, selfish, secretive Lorna Kepler.  In confronting the ghost of the dead Lorna, Kinsey must enter the dark, subterranean worlds of prostitution, pornography, political corruption, graft, greed, and dysfunctional family secrets.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Palindrome” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Palindrome (1991)  
Harper, 447 pages, $5.99 paperback  
ISBN  0 06 109936 8

A woman staggers into a hospital emergency room so badly beaten she’s unrecognizable.  The patient is Liz Barwick, professional photographer and wife of pro football player Baker Ramsey.  After receiving a hefty divorce settlement from Ramsey and an additional settlement from his team, Barwick retreats to Cumberland Island, off the coast of Georgia, to recuperate physically and emotionally.  The reconstructive surgery necessary after the beating Ramsey gave her has changed her appearance, and she hopes to begin a new life to go along with her new face on Cumberland Island.

The island is presided over by ninety-one-year-old Angus Drummond, whose family has owned and run it for generations.  Now Angus wonders who will take his place. His own descendants are scattered around the U.S., and none seems interested in living permanently on Cumberland Island and managing its affairs. While the old man worries about what will happen to his island, people who knew Liz back in Atlanta begin to die.

The book’s title refers to Angus Drummond’s identical twin grandsons, Hamish and Keir. (A palindrome is a statement that reads the same both forward and backward.) The boys were very close as young children, but the year they turned eighteen something (nobody knows what) happened between them. They have not spoken to each other since that time, and each refuses to visit his grandfather—usually even to be present on the island—at the same time as the other. Liz Barwick begins an affair with Keir.

The book’s mystery lies in the history of the Drummond family, while Baker Ramsey’s pursuit of his former wife heightens the suspense. Woods weaves these two threads together in a confrontation scene played out, in typical melodramatic fashion, during a raging storm on the island.  But despite the melodramatic ending, this is an engrossing novel of mystery, suspense, and human psychology.

Palindrome was nominated for an Edgar Award.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Hornet’s Nest” by Patricia Cornwell

Cornwell, Patricia. Hornet’s Nest (1996)  
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 377 pages, $25.95 hardcover  
ISBN 0 399 14228 2

I hoped that a break from Dr. Scarpetta might rejuvenate Patricia Cornwell’s writing. It didn’t. This is among the worst novels I’ve ever read. Most books this poorly written would end up in some editor’s wastebasket.

The kindest thing that can be said about this book is that it lacks focus. It’s impossible to sum up Hornet’s Nest in a sentence or two.

First, there’s no central character. Near the beginning, the novel looks as if it’s going to focus on Andy Brazil, a volunteer police officer and rookie newspaper reporter who wants to cover the police beat. But after introducing Brazil, the novel shifts to Deputy Police Chief Virginia West. Then, about half way through, the emphasis shifts again, this time to Police Chief Judy Hammer. Most of the second half of the book covers Hammer’s relationship with her husband. The paths of these three characters cross superficially throughout, but it’s never clear exactly whose story we’re reading.

Second, because there’s no single main character, there’s also no plot focus. Brazil, West, and Hammer all have their own separate stories. Initially it looks as if the pursuit of a vicious serial killer will provide the focus, but that aspect of the action soon disappears except for a nominal reappearance at the end.  

Another troublesome aspect of this novel is the stereotyped characters it presents: the Jewish banker who, behind the scenes, wields the true political power in the city; the mayor, a good ol’ boy who wants to hush up the killings because they’re bad for business and tourism; and Hammer and West, two highly successful women professionals whose personal lives are in shambles.

And then there’s West’s cat, Niles, who’s not a typical cat at all. Niles receives psychic messages from the flashing red light atop the bank building, and drags a five-dollar bill and a pair of wet panties from the dryer to give West the message “money laundering.”

It’s difficult to figure out what Cornwell was trying to do with this novel. Perhaps it’s the introduction of a new series; that would explain its open-endedness. But as a self-contained novel, it fails miserably.

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown

Fiction Review

“Under the Lake” by Stuart Woods

Woods, Stuart. Under the Lake (1987)  
Avon, $6.50  paperback 
ISBN  0 30 70519 2

In this excellent supernatural thriller, John Howell, former newspaper reporter and recipient of the Nobel Prize, is approaching 40.  Having burned out on newspaper work, he is now supposedly working on The Great American Novel;  actually, he spends his days getting drunk and staring at a blank page in his workroom over the garage.  When chicken king Lurton Pitts, intending a run for the Presidency, offers Howell $60,000 to ghost write his autobiography over the next three months, Howell grudgingly accepts.  His brother-in-law Denham White offers him the use of his cabin at a lake in the mountains of northern Georgia.

Once Howell arrives at the cabin on the shores of the man-made lake in Sutherland, Georgia, he begins to have visions of a young girl.  With the help of a female undercover investigative reporter named Scotty, Howell sets out to discover who the young girl in his vision is and why she keeps appearing.  

© 1997 by Mary Daniels Brown