Buried Prey, by John Sandford
A Pulitzer-prize winner and prolific novelist, John Sandford, AKA John Camp, is a talented man. Since 1989, his “Prey” series has enthralled readers, and more recently he has been acclaimed for his Virgil Flowers series.
In this, the 21st of the Prey books, Sandford revisits the earliest days of his protagonist, Lucas Davenport. With the discovery of the remains of two girls murdered a quarter of a century ago, Davenport is forced to return to his first ever case as a plainclothes police officer. Back then, in 1985, Davenport failed to tie up the loose ends in an investigation, and as a result has always believed justice was not served.
There are some prequels that reinvigorate a series, rediscovering the core of their appeal. Readers in the US are all-but unanimous in citing Buried Prey as one such book; putting this reviewer in the minority. The essence of a good prequel is to witness the nascence of a much loved character, but the youthful Davenport is already a fully developed character by the time he is introduced to the reader, and not easily distinguishable from his older self. He is a fully formed, all-American hero in the mould of a younger Mike Hammer; arrogant, physically imposing, sexually athletic, uncompromising, a contrast with the flawed, underdog hero of so much crime fiction. His physicality automatically marks him out as the favourite in any confrontation -
“Whoa. Slow down, Earl. He’s a cop, he was third all-Big Ten in hockey, he can press three twenty-five and likes to fight.”
“And if you keep coming, I’ll beat your ass into one big bruise and then put it in jail.” Lucas said. “I am not in a good mood right now.”
Davenport is in no real danger throughout the book, except perhaps the danger of falling foul of line-toeing superiors. Without jeopardy however, there is little real drama.
There is humour however, the sharp, sardonic cop wit that is grist to the mill of decent crime writing -
“First she got Jesus, probably fifteen years ago, and that didn’t work out, so she tried Scientology, and that didn’t help, but it cost a lot of money, so she tried Buddhism and yoga, and those didn’t work, so she started drinking. I think that helped, because she’s still drinking.”
Indeed, the high points of the book are the moments of lacerating wit and the withering put-downs.
The historical period makes a great setting for a flashback. In 1985, the crack explosion was just dawning, and with it the boom in murders and associated crimes. AIDS was just beginning to rear its head, with cops investigating crime scenes needing to be on the lookout for used needles. As a backdrop for crime writing, it was something of a golden age, fraught with mystery, fear and a sense of social doom, and Sandford does exploit the era well without becoming heavy-handed.
Given the era, there is also something of a nostalgic feeling about Buried Prey. Davenport is a wandering shamus, burning through shoe leather as he does the old-fashioned leg work of visiting witnesses, hunting down suspects and attending crime scenes. There is a whiff of Marlowe about Davenport, albeit without Marlowe’s rugged tenacity.
Overall, there is a lot to like about Buried Prey; as a police procedural it hangs together well, and resounds with plausibility. Its weaknesses lie in characterisation. Too often Sandford tells where he should show, and he eschews internal monologue almost completely. As a result, his characters are opaque and difficult to relate to. The narrative moves along at a respectable pace, but without the thrill of a twist, or an occasional ramping up of tension, it feels relatively pedestrian.
There is an abundance of great crime fiction out there, both from new authors breaking through and firm favourites still going strong. While sound in places, unfortunately Buried Prey feels too much like the work of a writer going through the motions.