This is the fourth Virgil Flowers novel, but each book is self-contained and you don’t need to have read any of the previous ones to enjoy Bad Blood to the full. The series started as a spin-off from John Sandford’s long-running and extremely successful ‘Prey’ series, letting one of the minor characters develop and take on the lead role.
Much as I enjoyed the ‘Prey’ series and still pick up those books, which feature Lucas Davenport, I have to say that I now prefer the Virgil Flowers investigations. Perhaps Davenport had gotten a little too cosy and comfortable? He was certainly a more interesting protagonist in his younger days when anything in tight trousers turned his head… and that frikkin’ Flowers (as he’s charmingly called by almost everyone) certainly has his own ways with women.
In ‘Bad Blood’, Flowers is called upon to investigate a strange murder, a possible suicide, and then another suspicious murder-suicide. All three may be linked and as Virgil starts making enquiries, so he uncovers what may be a much bigger hidden crime, one which has gone on in a rural community for generations. The plot is credible and engaging, and so are the characters – Virgil is a modern day cowboy but absolutely no fool. He’s an intelligent man who gets a buzz out of detecting, who has an eye for the ladies, and who doesn’t run from a fight.
The story is set in the icy winter outlands of rural Minnesota, and John Sandford has a real knack for bringing these locations into vivid life. You get a real sense of the huge open landscape, of the isolation of small homesteads, and the claustrophobic nature of small town society. Sandford also has a small genius for pointing out the absurd and for brilliantly snappy dialogue. His characters interact in a naturalistic manner, bantering back and forth, and Virgil is an especially interesting person to get to know. He’s the son of a preacher man who talks to god before he goes to sleep most nights… but he’s also a whip-smart detective, an incorrigible Romeo. His problem – if indeed it is a problem – is not that he doesn’t love any one woman enough. It’s that he loves women way too much…
Sandford keeps the plot tight and the action pacey. He also plays down some of the politics and press which had almost overwhelmed the ‘Prey’ novels at one point. Although the subject matter can be extremely bleak, touching on the worst aspects of human depravity, Sandford’s skill is in balancing those extremes with an honourable protagonist: a good man, doing the best he can. The result is a superb modern American police procedural – not quite a thriller, more thoughtful than most crime novels.
Bad Blood is a good place to start if you’ve not met Virgil Flowers before – and (although I hate to stoop to using the crime cliché of the era) if you like Jack Reacher, then you should enjoy this character, too.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Bad Blood by John Sandford is available as an ebook and paperback