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.

Sunday Salon: translated fiction to read this Summer

TSSbadge3 With the holiday season well-advanced in some regions of the world, and about to hit this small island mid-next-week with the end of the school term, I present a few holiday reading recommendations from books reviewed in the past few weeks. The two parameters I've chosen are: (1) translated into English; and (2) not on the shortlist for the CWA 2009 International Dagger award.

First, my review of Island of the Naked Women, by Inger Frimansson and translated by Laura A. Wideburg, is up today at Euro Crime. From my review: "I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is a strong candidate for my "best of" list for this year. As well as the satisfying "on the surface" mystery, there is an allegorical aspect to the story, which gives it a haunting quality. The island of the naked women (Shame Island) is where legend has it that, in the olden days, wives from the village who had been unfaithful to their husbands were sent, naked, to fend for themselves. It is presumed they starved. The wives in the story told in the book live in more enlightened times, but is their fate any better than that of their historical counterparts?" Read my full review at Euro Crime.

Second, up last week at Euro Crime, is my review of The Water's Edge by Karin Fossum, translated by Charlotte Barsund. "As usual, I am very impressed by Karin Fossum's talent and originality. In THE WATER'S EDGE she has taken an upsetting and controversial topic– the painful death of a child or children – and has made it palatable and interesting even to a sensitive reader who, frankly, cannot usually bear to think about the subject. The author uses the events in the book to look at people, their attitudes and relationships, in both small and large ways." Read the whole review here.

Over at Reactions to Reading, Bernadette reviews Karin Alvtegen's Missing, translated by Anna Paterson (I presume, if it is the same edition as the one I read). Bernadette writes: "I  intended to read a few pages of this before going to sleep last night. I quite literally could not put it down and finished the whole thing in one sitting ….Here is story telling at its absolute finest: I was hooked from page one of this simple and moving tale." The rest of Bernadette's 5/5 review is here.

For those, like me, who enjoyed Johan Theorin's debut Echoes from the Dead, Peter of Nordic Bookblog writes an early review of the second in the series, The Darkest Room Peter says that like Theorin's "first novel, this too is an intelligent book somewhere in between a crime fiction book and a ghost story." I am shocked to note that there is no mention of the translator of this novel either in this review, or at the publishers' website, or Amazon, or on the Guardian review. I guess that it is translated by Marlaine Delargy, who translated the author's first novel, but I hope the name of the translator is provided in at least some of these places by the time the book is on sale.

Finally for this post, a new (to me, and in fact quite new) blog called The View from the Blue House posts a review of The Devil's Star by Jo Nesbo, translated by Don Bartlett (a.k.a. Harry Hole). Rob Kitchin, the reviewer, calls the book "a highly enjoyable read and I zipped through it, picking it up at every opportunity so I could find out what happened next. Nesbø is particularly good at keeping the pace and tension high, running several sub-plots simultaneously and linking them in and out of each other." Read on here. [If you are tempted to read this book, my strong advice is don't do so until you've read first The Redbreast and then Nemesis – the correct reading order is here.]

Sunday Salon: The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds

The Chalk Circle Man
By Fred Vargas, translated by Sian Reynolds.

So I come to the last book I have to read that is on the shortlist for the 2009 International Dagger award. It’s French, and the first in the Adamsberg series that has already won Fred Vargas this award for two years in succession (2006 and 2007).
Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg has been, until the start of this novel, a provincial police inspector of great unconventionality but with an unusually high success rate in solving cases. Therefore, as the novel opens, he’s recently promoted to commissioner in the Parisian force, and we see his eccentricities through the eyes of his close colleague, Inspector Danglard – himself a single parent of two sets of twins and additionally looking after a fifth child belonging to but abandoned by his ex-wife and her lover. Adamsberg has an instinctive, bordering on supernatural, style, as is shown by an initial vignette in which he correctly identifies the criminal in a case long before any evidence is found to force a confession from the suspect.
Despite the internal and external strangenesses of the sensual Adamsberg and the lugubrious Danglard, the story told in The Chalk Circle Man is at its heart a straightforward police procedural. Someone is drawing chalk circles on the Parisian streets at night, leaving strange objects in their centres. Adamsberg’s forebodings about the person behind this activity are soon borne out when a murdered body is found inside one of the circles. Despite intensive police activity, other murders follow, at different parts of the city.
An eccentric range of suspects is assembled even before the first body is found. An academic whose research speciality is deep-sea fish, Mathilde, has a hobby of following people round the city. One of these characters, a beautiful blind man called Paul Reyer, has disappeared and Mathilde, professing to be worried, reports him as missing to the police. She is ignored by all but Adamsberg, who rapidly finds the “missing” man (not missing at all). Soon, Reyer and another wanderer on the streets, an elderly woman called Clemence, are lodging with Mathilde in her fish-obsessed house. Clemence is addicted to answering lonely-hearts adverts, but is perpetually disappointed because each time she arranges to meet someone, he immediately abandons the old woman on sight.
How these three oddballs are going to become involved in the chalk circle story is not clear – but involved they are, not only with the mystery but also, in Mathilde’s case, with Adamsberg in a much more personal sense. As events reach their climax, the author plays fair with her readers and provides a satisfying, if sad, solution to the bizarre conundrum. At the same time, the author has piqued the reader's interest in the affectionate relationship (mainly unspoken) between Adamserg and Danglard, two men of very different outlook, to be explored further in future novels.
Much has been written about Vargas's alternative universe. I see her characters as acting like children in adult’s bodies. This novel is a fable, in which people live out their impulses, creative or destructive, without thought of consequence. Nobody plans for the future, living in the existential present. Yet the motivation of the murderer is cold and logically carried out – and would pass muster in a novel firmly rooted in pedestrian reality.
The book is peppered with acute social observations; cynical yet funny barbs at the media and  modern society (the excerpts from the newspaper reports of the chalk circles are hilarious); and myriad tiny delights – Mathilde’s plan to spend a day following a man who is interested in the mythical rotation of sunflower stems, Clemence’s pointed teeth for which Mathilde likes to provide zoological comparisons, or little exchanges between Adamsberg and Danglard about Byzantium and the emperor Justinian (actually highly relevant to the mystery). If the reader is prepared to take this world as it is, then the book is very satisfying. Its eccentricities are charming (though the author is ruthless within her creation, which is no fairy tale) – they are bound up in the pace and focus of the novel, rather than distracting the reader from these essentials.

Thanks to Karen Meek of Euro Crime for my proof copy of the book.

Fred Vargas at Euro Crime: a listing of all the books translated into English, in order, with links to reviews.

Crime Scraps discusses The Chalk Circle Man and order of translations of the Vargas books, in a series of posts.

L A Times: Sarah Weinman discusses Fred Vargas's novels and the order in which they have been translated.

Other reviews of The Chalk Circle Man at:

Euro Crime by Fiona Walker

Mysteries in Paradise by Kerrie

The Independent by Jane Jakeman

The Guardian (brief) by Laura Wilson

Book reviews 2009

See all my book reviews

My book reviews 2010

My book reviews 2008

My book reviews 2007

Highlights of 2009

Book reviews 2009

Missing by Karin Alvtegen (Euro Crime, April)

Shadow by Karin Alvtegen (Euro Crime, March)

Betrayal by Karin Alvtegen (Euro Crime, June)

True Murder by Yaba Badoe (Euro Crime, November)

Skin and Bones by Tom Bale (Petrona, January)

A Place of Safety by Helen Black (Euro Crime, February)

Three Weeks to Say Goodbye by C. J. Box (Petrona, December)

City of Fear by Alafair Burke (Petrona, February)

The Paper Moon by Andrea Camilleri (Picador blog, January)

August Heat by Andrea Camilleri (Euro Crime, July)

The Twilight Time by Karen Campbell (Euro Crime, March)

After the Fire by Karen Campbell (Euro Crime, May)

Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo (Petrona, November)

Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child (Euro Crime, July)

Red Bones by Ann Cleeves (Euro Crime, May)

The Crow Trap by Ann Cleeves (Petrona, September)

Hold Tight by Harlan Coben (Petrona, January)

Long Lost by Harlan Coben (Petrona, May)

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Petrona, May)

Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly (Petrona brief, October)

No Escape by N. J. Cooper (Euro Crime, November)

Suffer the Children by Adam Creed (Euro Crime, August)

Burial by Neil Cross (Euro Crime, January)

Frozen Tracks by Ake Edwardson (Euro Crime, August)

Dead Lovely by Helen Fitzgerald (Euro Crime, June)

My Last Confession by Helen Fitzgerald (Euro Crime, August)

Inspector Singh Investigates: A most peculiar Malaysian murder by Shamini Flint (Petrona, June)

The Water’s Edge by Karin Fossum (Euro Crime, July)

Island of the Naked Women by Inger Frimansson (Euro Crime, July)

Good Night, My Darling by Inger Frimansson (Euro Crime, October)

The Shadow in the Water by Inger Frimansson (Euro Crime, November)

Thumbprint by Friedrich Glauser (Petrona, November)

The Coroner by M. R. Hall (Euro Crime, January)

The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr (Petrona, April)

The Lie by Petra Hammesfahr (Euro Crime, October)

The Other Half Lives by Sophie Hannah (Euro Crime, March)

Skin by Mo Hayder (Euro Crime, March)

Just Take My Heart by Mary Higgins Clark (Petrona, September)

Out of a Clear Sky by Sally Hinchcliffe (Euro Crime, April)

The Darkest Hour by Katherine Howell (Petrona, November)

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason (Euro Crime, October)

Dead Tomorrow by Peter James (Euro Crime, June)

To Steal Her Love by Matti Joensuu (Euro Crime, November)

Half Broken Things by Morag Joss (Euro Crime, April)

A Lonely Place/Unknown by Mari Jungstedt (Euro Crime, February)

Dark Times in the City by Gene Kerrigan (Euro Crime, June)

Publish or Perish by Margot Kinberg (Petrona, October)

The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg (Petrona, July)

<A href="; >The Girl who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson (Euro Crime, January)

The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (Euro Crime, October)

Millennium trilogy (brief) by Stieg Larsson (Petrona, November).

City of the Sun by David Levien (Petrona, December).

Executive Privilege by Philip Margolin (Petrona, April)

Body Count by P. D. Martin (Petrona, June)

Core of Evil by Nigel McCreary (Euro Crime, November)

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid (Petrona, April)

Fever of the Bone by Val McDermid (Euro Crime, September)

Bleed a River Deep by Brian McGilloway (Euro Crime, April)

Blood Safari by Deon Meyer (Euro Crime, December)

The Southern Seas by Manuel Vazquez Montalban (Petrona, November)

Go to Helena Handbasket by Donna Moore (Euro Crime, March)

Nemesis by Jo Nesbo (brief) (Petrona, July)

The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo (Petrona, July)

The Mind’s Eye by Hakan Nesser (Euro Crime, May)

Back to the Coast, by Saskia Noort (Euro Crime, September)

Doors Open by Ian Rankin (Petrona brief, October)

Wicked Prey by John Sandford (Petrona, November)

Consorts of Death by Gunnar Staalesen (Euro Crime, November)

Lullaby by Claire Seeber (Euro Crime, May).

Bloodprint by Kitty Sewell (Euro Crime, February)

Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Euro Crime, May)

The Abominable Man by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo (Euro Crime, January)

Genesis by Karin Slaughter (Petrona, July)

Shooting Star by Peter Temple (Petrona, May)

The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin (Euro Crime, August)

The Herring Seller’s Apprentice by L. C. Tyler (Euro Crime, February)

The Chalk Circle Man by Fred Vargas (Petrona, July)

Close Up by Esther Verhoef (Euro Crime, September)

The Trophy Taker by Lee Weeks (Euro Crime, January)

The Trafficked by Lee Weeks (Euro Crime, May)

Dead Time by Stephen White (Petrona, August)