In 'Mad River,' A Friendly Cop Tackles Rural Crime
John Sandford has written his own five-foot shelf of novels and thrillers, most of them as part of the "Prey" series. Almost all of the books are set in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.
His cast of characters has changed and shifted somewhat over time, but largely features Minnesota cops. The plots are centered around Lucas Davenport, a kind of superstar investigator who ages a little from book to book and has a checkered career with a bit of a bad boy reputation – one that has not prevented him from becoming a high ranking official in state law enforcement.
But several years ago, John Sandford switched gears and introduced a new character — Virgil Flowers. Flowers is a rural Minnesota cop who works for Lucas Davenport, but in some ways picks up where Davenport leaves off.
Sandford says one of the reasons he created Flowers was because Davenport got married and had kids. "Most people like a little sex in their novels," he tells Weekend Edition host Linda Wertheimer. "And the problem with Davenport was that he could no longer chase women because that would make him a bad guy, and your hero can't be a bad guy in that way."
The other reason was more charitable: "A lot of my friends were retiring from the newspaper business, and the newspaper pensions are not enormous," Sandford says. So he and a bunch of friends got together to lay out the plot and characters; Sandford would then write it into a novel. "Then we would get the money from the book and split it. The idea was to give my friends this last shot of cash before Social Security kicked in."
Sandford is also writing two books a year, churning out about 220,000 words. "And honest to God, I can't do that. I really do need the help of other people working with me."
On why Virgil Flowers was sent out to the country:
"Davenport has pretty much got the twin cities nailed down. I've always been sort of interested in the rural countryside. Things happen out there that are very strange to city dwellers. If you actually hang out in the countryside, which I did, it's actually quite peaceful. They don't have a lot of crime in the countryside other than theft. But every once in a while, things turn ugly, and when they turn ugly, they turn very ugly.
On why Flowers' doesn't keep his investigations confidential:
"Virgil is the kind of guy who can stand on a street corner and have a long, complicated conversation with people he doesn't know, because he's a friendly guy. Part of that has grown out of my own irritation with the cops, who are doing an investigation and they can't tell you about something. Why can't they tell you about it? The criminal knows about it, they know about it, so why shouldn't they tell the public? Why not just tell people? So that's what Virgil does.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. John Sandford has written his own five-foot shelf of novels - thrillers, most of them part of the "Prey" series - almost all set in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. His cast of characters, which has changed and shifted some, features Minnesota cops. The plots are centered on Lucas Davenport, a kind of superstar investigator who ages a little bit from book to book and has a checkered career with a bit of a bad boy reputation which has not prevented him from becoming a high-ranking official in state law enforcement. But several years ago, John Sandford switched gears and introduced a new character - Virgil Flowers - a rural Minnesota cop who works for Lucas Davenport but has his own series. The sixth Flowers novel is "Mad River." John Sandford joins us from member station WSUI in Iowa City. Welcome to the program.
JOHN SANDFORD: Yeah, thanks, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: Now, I've been very curious as a reader of your books why you decided to branch out again and invent young Flowers and what that process is like.
SANDFORD: Well, actually, there were two reasons for doing that. The first one was that Lucas Davenport, who has always kind of chased after women, got himself married, got kids, settled down. And most people like a little sex in their novels, and the problem with Davenport was that he could no longer chase women because that would make him a bad guy, and your hero can't be a bad guy in that way.
SANDFORD: He has to stay faithful. And so I started thinking about another character that was actually going to be in the Davenport books, that was Virgil Flowers. And his first appearance is in a "Prey" book. Then another thing came up. A lot of my friends were retiring from the newspaper business and the newspaper pensions are not enormous. And so my idea was that I would create another character and I would have my friends lay out the plot, work out the characters built around this Flowers character. And then what we would do is we'd get the money from the book and split it. The idea was to give my friends as kind of this last shot of cash before Social Security kicked in.
SANDFORD: So, that was sort of the motive for it.
WERTHEIMER: So, they do the plotting with, I assume, some consultation.
SANDFORD: Yeah, a lot of consultation. All of them, with one exception, were professional writers in the sense that they were newspaper people. Three of them have actually written novels.
WERTHEIMER: Right. I've read some of their novels. Chuck Logan...
SANDFORD: Yeah, Chuck Logan. And so we work this out and they do the kind of the plotting and come up with the story and then I write through it and make it into a Sandford book.
WERTHEIMER: Well, I'm relieved to hear that because I thought maybe you were becoming a doddering old gent who couldn't write your books anymore.
SANDFORD: Well, I am becoming doddering and old but I have - I'm writing two books a year now. It's like 220,000 words or something like finished, and, honest to God, I can't do that. I really do need the help of, you know, other people working with me.
WERTHEIMER: One of the most interesting things you decided to do was to move Virgil Flowers to the country, to the small Minnesota towns - places that are very different from the Twin Cities. Sometimes he's up north, sometimes down south, out on the prairie, up in the forests. How come you sent him to the country?
SANDFORD: Just because I guess it was different than Davenport. Because Davenport has pretty much got the Twin Cities nailed down. I've always been sort of interested in the rural countryside. Things out there happen out there that are very strange, you know, to city dwellers. If you actually hang out in the countryside, which I did - I spent a lot of time traveling around the rural country when I was a newspaper reporter usually on crime stories. It's actually quite peaceful. They don't have a lot of crime in the countryside other than theft. But every once in a while, things turn ugly, and when they turn ugly they tend to turn very ugly out there.
WERTHEIMER: Now, in the newest book, Virgil is working on a series of murders which happened in a cluster of farming towns, which include the town where his parents live. Virgil is a preacher's kid, and in the course of this story, he goes over to his mom and dad's for dinner. I mean, this is not exactly the hard-boiled detective.
SANDFORD: Well, Virgil isn't very hard-boiled. I mean, he doesn't carry a gun very much. He often leaves it in the truck or forgets about it. He's not a good shot. In the story where we introduced him, I think he shot a woman in the foot when he was aiming for her chest 'cause she was about to kill somebody else. And Davenport gets on him because he doesn't carry the gun very much. He likes to settle things peacefully, if he can. In these books, he hasn't been able to do that.
WERTHEIMER: One of the things that is interesting about him is that every once in a while he just sort of packs it in and goes fishing, which he does kind of meditatively, I gather, to help him see what he's doing. But the other thing that is really funny about him, I think, is that he talks all the time about what he knows. I mean, he tells everybody - people who are involved in the case, people who are sitting around in the diner. You know, this just doesn't happen in thrillers, it seems to me. I mean, there is nothing confidential about his investigations.
SANDFORD: Virgil's the kind of guy who can stand on the street corner and have a long, complicated conversation with people he doesn't know because he's a friendly guy. Part of that has grown out of my own irritation with the cops who, you know, are doing an investigation and they can't tell you about something. Why can't they tell you about it? The criminal knows about it; they know about it, so why shouldn't they tell the public? They're being paid by the public. So, they have this thing, like, this is kind of private information. Why not just tell people? So, that's what Virgil does. If somebody asks him about the case, he'll tell them about it. Maybe Virgil will find out something useful by talking about it. So, in that one story in particular he's sitting at a diner down in southern Minnesota and the people from the diner are perfectly happy to chip in.
WERTHEIMER: You were one of the writers interviewed on MORNING EDITION's Crime in the City series, in part because you are so closely identified with the city, with Minnesota and the Twin Cities. And now, I read in the flyleaf of your most recent book that you are living in my home state of New Mexico now and in California. What's with that?
SANDFORD: Part of it is that five years ago my wife passed away, and she was very closely associated, in my mind, with that house that I lived in in Minnesota. And so I was living in this big house kind of rattling around there and it was really kind of working on my mind. I was getting depressed. So, I bought a house out in California where my children live. Then I ran into a woman a couple of years ago who I knew from many years ago at the newspaper. And we struck up a relationship and we found out that we both very much like Santa Fe. And so we bought a place in Santa Fe and just having a wonderful time there.
WERTHEIMER: So, does this mean that if we get another Lucas Davenport novel that he will be investigating something at the ski area in Taos, or...
SANDFORD: No. I still have a cabin right across the river from Minnesota and Wisconsin. That's going to stay there for quite a long time yet. And so I'll be back in Minnesota a lot.
WERTHEIMER: John Sandford joined us from WSUI in Iowa City. His newest book, featuring Virgil Flowers, is called "Mad River" and will be released on October 2nd. Thank you very much.
SANDFORD: Yeah, thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.