Back from my holiday in the south of France – tanned in places, burned in others, but otherwise well-rested from 10 days spent paddling in the Med. I also managed to get plenty of reading in – I’m currently halfway through Denise Mina’s Gods and Beasts, but want to concentrate in this post on my other choice, Bad Blood.
I went for John Sandford thanks to Ken Bruen, who references him in The Guards. When I visited my local library Bad Blood was the only book of Sandford’s they had, which as it turns out was a terrific place to start. The novel is pacy, exciting and unpredictable, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into more of Sandford’s work.
Bad Blood features investigator Virgil Flowers, attached to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (which sounds fictitious – at least to me – but isn’t: check out their website and learn, as I did, that they were the first US agency to identify a suspect based solely on DNA evidence. Impressive, non?). Flowers was originally created as a supporting character in another series of books, but Sandford liked him so much he gave him a promotion. There have been seven Flowers novels so far, and Bad Blood sits slap bang in the middle of the series.
I liked Flowers immediately – he’s a terrific creation. Determined, charming and quick-witted, he’s also a man with a past – the son of a church minister, he’s as ready with a Bible quotation as in applying pressure in more direct ways (throughout the book, he’s referred to more than once as ‘that fuckin’ Flowers’). There’s more than the touch of the cowboy about him – a stereotype he plays up to, especially in his developing relationship with the local female sheriff, Lee Coakley. ‘She had a glint in her eye,’ Flowers thinks at one point. ‘And she carried a gun. He liked that in a woman, because it sometimes meant that he didn’t have to.‘
Coakley is investigating a murder, which has been dressed to look like an accident. When the suspect in turn dies in jail, and one of her deputies appears to be responsible, Coakley realises she needs some outside help. She approaches Flowers and, working together, they uncover a series of crimes which quickly blossoms into a much wider (and darker) conspiracy.
In contrast to its complex plot, Bad Blood is very economically written – it’s a very lean book, largely thanks to Sandford’s extensive journalist experience. He rarely repeats himself, and also keeps nothing deliberately hidden; everything that Flowers learns is laid open for the reader, so we see the investigation progress alongside him. Indeed, this is made explicit through a recurring scene, where Flowers visits the local diner and updates the locals on how the investigation is progressing. Coakley is initally sceptical of this approach – ‘What? You’re a talk-show host?’ – but Flowers sticks to his guns.
He said, ‘What good does it do to keep the information private? The killers know everything we do. Why shouldn’t the tax-payers know it?’
She said, ‘Well.’ Thought about it, then said, ‘It doesn’t seem law enforcement-like.’
‘That’s a problem for law enforcement,’ Virgil said. ‘You can get a lot more done if you ask around, and spread the joy.’
All of this has the effect that we’re looking over Flowers’ shoulder, which of course draws you deeper into the story. Bad Blood is one of those rare novels that I put down only very reluctantly. When I wasn’t reading it, I spent a good amount of time thinking about it, and where it would take me next. And yet, in spite of his (and Flowers’) openness, Sandford still has plenty with which he can surprise the reader. I raced through the book, keen to know how it would finally turn out.
At times, this eagerness was in spite of the subject matter. The subject of the investigation in Bad Blood is extremely dark, and concerns child abuse within the context of an organised religion – although there’s nothing remotely religious or spiritual about the crimes Flowers uncovers. As someone with my own children, there were several occasions where I had to put the book down, and take a breath. Sandford doesn’t dwell on these crimes but they are still shocking, and again have the effect of increasing the reader’s empathy with Flowers’ ongoing investigation.
Sandford paints the rural setting extremely well; I have to confess that I had no idea where Minnesota was before I started reading the book. Early on, Sandford describes the landscape Flowers is driving through on the way to meet with Coakley – ‘The countryside was nothing but farms: corn and beans and corn and beans and corn and beans, and over there some wild man had apparently planted wheat or oats, judging from the stubble; the countryside all black trees and brush and white snow and houses and red barns.‘ There’s a lonely, apocalyptic feeling to the book, heightened by the religious undercurrents; and whilst Flowers does eventually get his perpetrator, the resolution is neither straightforward nor wholly reassuring. The end of the novel is lit up with fires burning across the empty Minnesota landscape, and neither Flowers nor Coakley escape completely unscathed.
But I’m glad that they do, and also that they are another six Virgil Flowers novels for me to work my way through. I’d recommend Bad Blood – or indeed anything else by Sandford – in a heartbeat, and I’m hoping there’s more of his work in the library when I pay them a visit with the kids tomorrow.
John Sandford’s website is at johnsandford.org