Review: Dead Watch


John Sandford’s very popular and best-selling _Prey_ series has been characterized as having “high entertainment value; deftly rendered characterizations; and clever, believable dialogue.” In his latest novel, _Dead Watch_, Sandford, who has a strong connection to the Twin Cities, introduces a new character and what may turn out to be a new series.

Sandford, whose real name is John Camp, lives in St. Paul and worked as a reporter for the _St. Paul Pioneer Press_ from 1978 to 1989. He was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for a series of stories on Native American culture, and in 1986 he won a Pulitzer Prize for Non-Deadline Feature Writing for a series of stories titled “Life on the Land: An American Farm Family.”

With _Dead Watch_, Sandford introduces a new protagonist, Jake Winter. Having written a highly influential book about maneuvering the Washington bureaucracy, Winter is on the faculty of Georgetown University, but he works primarily as a fixit man for a U.S. President’s chief of staff. When a problem develops, Winter is the guy who knows how to manipulate the power structure to quickly and quietly solve it to the President’s benefit. His Special Forces training and war experience in Afghanistan, where he got the leg wound that causes his limp, come in handy as well. Certainly it does in this novel.

Former Virginia Senator, Lincoln Bowe, is missing. Has he been kidnapped, committed suicide, just decided to drop out, or could there be an even more sinister reason for his disappearance? This being an election year, the President wants Winter to find out what is really going on and determine whether it is a threat to his re-election. Bowe was defeated in his own bitter and ugly re-election bid by Arlo Goodman, the current governor of Virginia, who also has started an organization, the Watchmen, that many think is a proto-fascist group designed to help the governor take over the government. As Winter investigates the interplay of these possibilities, he discovers a great mutual attraction with Madison (Mrs.) Bowe, information about the missing Senator’s sexual orientation, plots within plots within plots, and an even greater threat to the President than first imagined.

Winter, like Sandford’s other protagonists, is intelligent and tough and capable. And though not part of Sandford’s other series, the _Dead Watch_ narrative moves along like those books. Like any good journalist, Sandford’s prose is invisible. Each sentence seems hooked to the previous one, so we are pulled through the plot as though riding a speedy, silent train of words.

But there isn’t much here beyond the plot. We are given only brief, shallow backgrounds for Winter and Madison, the main characters, and descriptions of persons and occurrences serve to move us to the next plot point rather than fill out these people or provide a meaningful backdrop for what is happening.

Sandford hints at some Nazi allusions with the Watchmen and characters’ names, and I suspect he wants to say something about his view of the current American political situation, but these intentions seem to slip unfulfilled into the vast reaches of white space on each page. And at the narrative’s climax, Winter and Madison Bowe exhibit a moral vacuousness that I found troubling, and that changed the tone of the book dramatically for me. So, while the plot gets us to our destination of a fairly entertaining read, we cannot really look back on it as an enriching journey. No doubt, though, _Dead Watch_ will continue to climb the best seller charts unimpeded. Enjoy the ride.

_Robin Russell is a Minneapolis writer, editor, and poet who also publishes_ “”: