Tour’s Books Blog

March 1, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Heat Lightening by John Sanford

Filed under: Book review,Mystery review,Police detective — toursbooks @ 5:51 pm
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Like many quality mystery and thriller authors, John Sanford is a former Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. He moved to full time novelist with two books – his first Kipp novel, Fool’s Run, a computer based caper novel (it was really good in its day) was published under his real name, John Camp, and his first Lucas Davenport novel Rules of Prey, a police detective mystery, published under John Sanford. Though he wrote a second Kipp novel, it was the Prey novels that took off and became a classic series. (I waited years for a third Kipp novel by Camp before I learned he and Sanford were one and the same.) In 2000, by request of fans, he finally wrote a third Kipp novel, Devil’s Code – very good, and finally a fourth in 2003, The Hanged Man’s Song – good enough, but not his best. Now the 4 Kipp novels are under the better known Sanford pen name. In 2007 he introduced another investigator, Virgil Flowers, who now reports to Davenport in the BCA. Flowers got his own book – Dark of the Moon in 2007. Heat Lightening is Flowers’ second outing and Davenport will be back in the soon to be released Wicked Prey – May 2009 publication date.

It’s the middle of the night and Virgil is enjoying the warmth of a friendly visit to an ex-wife’s bed – and marveling at her ass, one of the natural wonders of the world, when the phone rings. A dead body, is found propped against a war memorial with a lemon in his mouth. Virgil heads out and his ex wife suggests he not let the door hit him in the ass on the way out. Ah yes, THAT’S why he divorced. Dressed in yesterdays’ clothes – jeans, tee shirt and boots, his usual uniform – Virgil hits the road.

The crime scene is pretty public – a war memorial in town. And it’s not the first one. Leaving a lemon in a guy’s mouth is kind of an unusual calling card. The dead guys are pretty much the same age. Questions of friends and neighbors lead to 3 guys chatting with the victim in the middle of the street at night shortly before his death. One of the men looked like an Ojibwa Indian, all were the same age group. As the story unravels, Virgil finds links back to the chaotic end of the Viet Nam war. Needing someone who knew the country then and now, he finds Mead Sinclair, an anti-war activist living locally with his half Vietnamese daughter, Mai. After an interview, Virgil’s instincts have him trailing Sinclair who takes the kind of precautions normally associated with undercover agents to reach a ‘cold’ phone. Is he paranoid or not at all what he seems? With the third death, the FBI wants in.

Virgil’s search for the men seen in the street takes him to reservation land where he has a confrontation with local and Indian police. Without authority on reservation there, he later finds himself in the difficult position of asking for help from those same men – and one of the cops is killed. He cannot figure out how the killers located the Indian. Hell, Virgil barely did. Finally, he takes his truck in and has the tech guys go over it. They find listening and tracking devices – very state of the art. He had been their tracker, leading them right to the witness who became a victim, and the local cop who died. Now he had the pieces to setup a trap. The climatic chase to the Canadian border was well done.

Incorporating elements of international intrigue isn’t Sanford’s usual miter, but he does it here successfully. The motive is more involved than mysterious and ‘who done it’ is no surprise at all. That it takes so long for Flowers to see it is likely penis blindness, a condition many males display around females when they want to get laid. What I found really bizarre was his ease with the leader of the hit team who calls him after the dust settles. He seems to hold no grudge for the execution of a policeman in their revenge killings. I cannot believe any cop would ever be so unaffected. That just struck an off note.

Flowers may look like Minnesota’s original good ol’ boy, but he’s a surprisingly complex man for someone in boots, jeans and tee shirts with all kinds of slogans. He’s a thinker. Someone who needs solitary quiet to puzzle over facts and guesswork – preferably out on a lake with a rod and reel in hand. Like Sanford’s Lucas Davenport, Flowers has a second vocation, he writes articles for “hook and bullet” – outdoors – magazines. Sanford has done a good job creating a whole person, not just a 2 dimensional character.

Like all of Sanford’s work, the story is well told, the pace is quick and the prose crisp. He has plenty of action interspersed with silent ruminations on a wide range of things on those long drives on the deserted roads as Virgil criss-crosses the state – or sits out in a boat, fishing. But this is a mystery, and the plot is not his best. Sanford is one of the few authors who never actually gets bad, but he is a bit uninspired in this outing.

My Grade: B-

Who would enjoy this book: Reader of Michael Connally’s Harry Bosch novels, J. A. Jance’s J. P. Beaumont series, Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series and James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux series. The rating is PG-17.


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