“Deadline” John Sandford (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

Deadline by John Sandford book cover

Virgil Flowers, with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, has a knack of making work for himself. In tracking down a dognapping gang, he uncovers a meth lab and then a possible connection to the murder of a journalist on a local paper, all in the backwoods of south east Minnesota, where he only agreed to help out with the dognapping case to stop the local rednecks turning into lynch mob. Readers, having been party to the school board meeting where a motion to kill local journalist Clancy Conley was passed, already know the who, why and how of the murder, which means John Sandford has set himself an uphill task of keeping readers hooked through the twists of investigations and getting them to care about the outcome.

Luckily there’s a lightly done thread of humour and well-drawn characters, who aren’t stereotypes or there to add local colour, to keep readers interested. It doesn’t take Virgil long to discover a flash drive that belonged to Clancy Conley with all his notes and evidence of the story he was working on that got him killed. Virgil’s clue is a song title. Readers have already figured out the hiring place due to the frequent references to it every time Virgil enters or leaves the journalist’s trailer. Conley had uncovered the school board’s scam: overcharging on essentials like fuel for the school buses and creaming the profit for themselves. Over the best part of a couple of decades, that amounts to sizeable profit. A profit the school board aren’t above protecting with murder. Their initial plan is to kill Conley to kill his story. Then, to throw Flowers off the scent, they agree to kill one of the town’s undesirables, who happens to be linked to the dognappers, and then throw in an arson attack on the offices the school board uses as good measure. Sandford keeps the pace fairly slow so readers get to know the individual school board members, their reasons for getting involved in the scam and, in a couple of cases, their getaway plans if they were caught. Although one of the board members does observe that Flowers is “sharper than he looks”. The incongruity of school board meeting to pass a unanimous motion to commit murder is played for humour.

Meanwhile Flowers has to keep the lynch mob, who know the dogs are on their way to be sold to bunchers who then sell the animals on to research laboratories, at bay so the DEA can take down the meth lab, as well as figure out the weakest link in the school board so they give each other up. No one pretends that’s not going to happen. Flowers is a laid-back fisherman with a love of vintage rock tee shirts, cowboy boots and his current girlfriend, Frankie. Frankie, a single mother of a brood of children, has survived two of the eight novels in the Virgil Flowers series so far so she looks like a keeper. Unlike most detectives’ love interests, Frankie copes with the danger inherent in Flowers’s job. Flowers doesn’t drink excessively, have anger issues or a dodgy family background so manages to escape the clichés and avoid looking too much like a Minnesota version of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux or Elmore Leonard’s Raylan. But John Sandford does share the same observant eye for the landscape and rural poverty and treats his subjects with compassion.

The one weakness was the touch of sentimentality that crept into the final scenes. After anti-vivisectionists gate-crash a dog fair, to prevent dogs being sold to research laboratories, and the ensuing chaos, one dog takes to following Virgil and Virgil winds up taking the dog home. I didn’t see Virgil actually doing this. From “Deadline”, Frankie seems far too practical to take on the challenge of another mouth to feed. The scene felt more like an opening into the next novel rather than integral to “Deadline”. I didn’t buy it.

“Deadline” is a smooth read, a thriller with more focus on humour than grit or motivation, written by an author who has justified confidence his characters will hold the readers’ focus. It’s a book to be read for the story rather than as a whodunit.

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