Virgil Flowers, an agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is one of the few detectives in the series to have a Homeric epithet – no, that this becomes a crude Chaucerian epithet. "F Flowers Flowers," his colleagues call him in honor of his ability to cut corners and get away with them. One of Virgil's favorite moves is to sneak into a suspect's home without a search warrant, uncover incriminating evidence, and convince the offender to incriminate himself in a way that withstands justice.
This tactic came into its own in John Sandford's brilliant but shocking "Bad Blood" (2010), the fourth of his Flowers novels and perhaps the darkest. Virgil experienced a religious cult that focused on the sexual exploitation of minors. Virgil sneaks back into Holy Ghost, the 11th and youngest in the series, but the crimes he's investigating are less shocking.
As the story begins, two unlikely friends – Wardell Holland, an Afghanistan war veteran, the mayor of the small, economically defunct Wheatfield, Minnesota, and John Jacob Skinner, a 17-year-old high school student, are ready for a citizenship renewal project , With the help of the acting of a woman who occasionally sleeps at Skinner, they will fake the apparitions of the Virgin in the local Catholic Church and see if the "miracles" are not reversing the fortune of the city – as indeed do.
Inasmuch as the mayor and the child open a shop, Skinner & Holland, Eats & Souvenirs almost immediately after the first apparition, a cynic may smell a bit fishy. But with Wheatfield's economy recovering-as many pilgrims flock that it's hard to find an empty hotel room or a free table in a restaurant-the cynics tend to close their nostrils and breathe through their mouths.
Then comes trouble. A pedestrian on the main street of the city is shot dead by an invisible sniper. A few days later it happens again. Virgil is called to the investigation and quickly recognizes what it is about. A local informant, speaking of himself and his wife, explains: "We are not Catholics, but this church has saved the city. Everyone knows that. This crazy man could send us back to the poorhouse. "
When Virgil talks to more city dwellers, he sees two oddities. Nobody seems to have heard the shots and neither was deadly. One victim was hit in the leg, the other on the hip. As for the apparitions, Virgil suspects: "Without shots, there would not have been any [them]but the immediate cause of the shootings was something else. "
It's a good mystery, adorned with play and ridicule between Virgil and his allies. After Virgil has identified a yellow spot on a letter that could be a clue to the rest of Cheetos, Skinner corrects him. "Cheez-Its. There is a subtle difference in yellow fat because you know if you have worked in the store. "
And there is an ongoing food joke. The restaurants in Wheatfield serve so bad food that one policeman after another takes over the solution from Virgil. Buy a frozen Potpie from Holland & Skinner, drop it and dig in. At the end of the novel, all the cops are convinced of eating so many potpies.
My only complaint is that Sandford never tells us how the apparitions are produced. Sure, the credulity of the pilgrims makes the task easy, but the impresarios have to do something technically and artistically correct, and it would have been nice to go behind the scenes with them.
Sandford's real name is John Roswell Camp. He is a former newspaper reporter and a writer as a phenomenon. Books pour out of him at such dizzying speeds – besides the secrets of Flowers, there are the 29 Prey novels with Detective Lucas Davenport and another dozen or so books – and on a level so reliable that Sandford belongs to the intoxicating society of the late , productive Ruth Rendell.
Dennis Drabelleis a former mystery publisher of Book World.
By John Sandford
Putnam 384 pp. $ 29