In John Sandford’s Prey novels, which paint the Twin Cities as dark as Gotham City, the noble but fault-ridden hero Lucas Davenport leads his own justice league of crackpot superheroes to rescue the victims of outrageous crimes. Far less moral than Superman, Lucas and his team of Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) agents are equally diligent yet far funnier and more human than those characters. While their humanity makes them entertaining and at times unlikable, they solve crimes and implement a form of justice that feels more satisfying (albeit disturbing) than traditional American heroes.
Lucas Davenport is dirty. He is a hunter. A ruggedly good-looking college-hockey-player-turned-detective-turned-wealthy-detective, Davenport is ruthless in his pursuit of his prey: the criminals who pollute his cities. Smart and sly, he stops at nothing to achieve his goals. He’s capable of piecing puzzles together long before other officers, but not so quickly that we doubt his humanity—and thus his vulnerability.
In Sandford’s latest novel to be published in paperback, Phantom Prey, Lucas Davenport and his crew are on a stakeout trying to catch druglord Siggy Toms. Siggy escapes police custody at a Target, and Lucas and crew are keeping an eye on his wife for signs of Siggy’s imminent return. Simultaneously, Weather, Lucas’s wife, ropes Lucas into solving the murder of her friend’s daughter, Frances Austin.
Solving the mystery of Frances’s murder and helping Alyssa Austin come to some closure regarding the fate of her daughter leads Lucas into a dark world of Goths, fairies, and psychotics. The primary suspect in the murder, a member of the Goth community named Fairy, appears to be an illusion. No witnesses can identify her, she disappears easily; indeed, her very existence is questionable. The elusive Goth fairy seems to be Sandford’s attempt at taking us into the mind of an insane character. An interesting concept, it never feels quite right. The madness of the villain is not so much unbelievable as uninteresting. There are moments where it works well, but the majority of the time it feels lackadaisical, as though Sandford himself wasn’t sure he really bought the idea.
Despite this flaw, the book is an entertaining read because the hunt and wait for Siggy Toms carries the novel’s momentum. As Lucas and his support team of Del, Jenkins, and Shrake stake out the often-naked Heather Toms, Siggy’s wife, they provide the necessary comic relief and the essential adrenaline rush of a good detective novel as they act both violently and intelligently. Not morally superior, Sandford’s crime fighters live in a realistic and complex moral universe where “right” and “wrong” exist not as black and white but as shades of grey.
Wicked Prey, released this summer, maintains the witty banter, suspense, and moral turmoil of all Sandford’s Prey novels and reunites Lucas and his fellow crimefighters as they hunt for a gang of bank robbers preying on the city during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Simultaneously, Sandford also develops the character of Lucas’s adopted fourteen-year-old daughter, Letty West. Letty must thwart her own kidnapping when an unsuccessful pimp, Randy Whitcomb, seeks revenge on Lucas by trying to abduct her. Previously incorporated in the novels as a supporting character, Letty emerges as Lucas’s ruthless female Doppelganger.
Although Letty’s story is subjugated to the plot of Lucas’s struggle to catch the team of criminals, it is by far the more intriguing of the two. Sandford’s ability to craft a likeably cruel teenager (far and beyond the traditional and pitiful sense of Mean Girls cruel) is fascinating. At 14, Letty thinks in cold calculating ways that seem too hardened and depressing for a young person to know, let alone need. Yet, her ability to not just survive, but thrive and outsmart those attempting to hunt her is impressive and almost inspiring.
Lucas, always a hero, but never a role model, suddenly sees his ethical reflection in Letty’s schemes and actions. What they are willing to do in their hunts for wickedness mirror their morals (not always in line with society’s laws) and personalities back upon each other. Lucas begins to understand that Letty sees the world through the very same lenses he uses. It both frightens and fills him with a sense of pride.
As a long time Prey reader, I have become apathetic to Lucas’s sense of justice. His actions, often violent and predatory, seem acceptable and necessary to fight crime. With Wicked Prey, Sandford shakes me out of that indifference and through Letty reopens the Pandora’s box of moral uncertainty. Letty resurrects and magnifies a desire to know what being moral means and what actions take us too far away from being right. One of John Sandford’s gifts as a writer is the ability to create heroes who are flawed in ways that force us to question our own morality and where we simultaneously question their actions and urge them to continue acting.
More than ever, with both Phantom Prey and Wicked Prey, Sandford leaves me wondering to whom the titles refer: the victims, the criminals, or the imperfect heroes hunting them? It is that question that makes Sandford’s novels far more interesting than standard whodunits.