Book review: Wicked Prey by John Sandford

Wicked prey Wicked Prey is nineteenth in the Lucas Davenport series (there is a twentieth, Storm Prey, due out early next year). I haven’t read all of the previous books, but have read enough of them (about six) not to be lost at this late stage.
Davenport is a tough but dandyish ex-cop who has previously had to leave the force because of killing someone (I surmise), and is now an agent of some kind for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension in Minnesota. He’s married to a surgeon called Weather, who barely features in Wicked Prey as she’s always at work, but she’s been significant in earlier books. The couple have a little boy called Sam, and have recently fostered a 14-year-old girl called Letty, who has had plenty of violently traumatic experiences in her past (doubtless told in a previous book).
Don’t let this preamble put you off – the author is very skilful at slipping in sufficient back story to orient the new or forgetful reader without affecting the pace of his plot. And it is some plot! A small gang plan a series of robberies at the Republican convention in St Paul, which is to endorse John McCain as official candidate for the US presidency. Davenport is called in to investigate, partly because all the cops are busy defending against a possible terrorist threat, but also because discretion is needed about the tarnished set-up in the political machine.
At the same time, Letty is working as an intern for a local TV station (for a woman who, it turns out, is the mother of another of Davenport’s children, but this relationship does not feature in this particular book). Letty becomes aware that she’s being watched by a strange trio – a man in a wheelchair, a teenage girl who appears to be a hooker, and a dope-addled hanger-on. It turns out that the disabled man, Randy Whitcomb, blames Davenport for his condition, and is plotting revenge in some way that involves Letty.
Both these plots are handled with wit, flair and pace. When I first realised I was going to be reading a book about a heist and a teenage girl being stalked and kidnapped, my heart sank. But it soon turned out that I was totally unfair to prejudge this double-whammy – the book is clever, fast, subtle and very witty indeed. It’s particularly strong on the interplay between Davenport and colleagues; and between the putative robbers.
I was engrossed in the strategy taken by the strong-willed Letty, and in the war of minds between the four members of the thieves’ gang and the various local and national law-enforcement agencies. An additional plus is that Davenport and co use plenty of traditional detective skills to work out who they are chasing and, more difficult, what the villains are planning to do and when. The scenes at the Republican hospitality centre are particularly good.
I found the resolution of both main plot themes a bit of a let-down, rather hastily treated. Letty is a cold piece of work, and will no doubt have this side of her character dissected in future instalments. The ending of the heist story was disappointing after all the situational and character build-up, so I’d rate this novel a high beta rather than an alpha. Very well worth reading, though – and one can forgive a lot when a book is so full of laconic humour and cynically mature observations of modern mores.

Wicked Prey by John Sandford.
Simon and Schuster, 2009. £12.99.

Author website, including bibliography.

I thank Karen of Euro Crime for my copy of this book.