34. Storm Front, John Sandford

12 Nov

Whoever is at the helm of the ghostwriting ship that bears John Sandford’s name is officially asleep at the wheel, or has run into an iceberg, or in this case run aground on a hokey, fake Israeli artifact.

I have written many times before about my deep devotion to Sandford’s Prey series of police procedurals, which at their best are tight and well-written, with great characterization, hilarious dialog, tough Minnesota guys with guns, and pretty much everything a girl, even a serious reader, could want in a thriller. And though I have noticed signs in the past that Sandford himself wasn’t writing his new series starring young detective Virgil Flowers, I have not been uptight about it, assuming that if this great writer (and very rich man, at this point) wanted to not pump out two books a year, and could find a way to automate the task, I wouldn’t blame him.

However, no. Storm Front, the latest Flowers book, was a terrible, unreadable, dull monstrosity that read like a parody of a John Sandford novel. Reading it was like seeing a beloved character (and writer) die and return as a zombie. The plot, involving a stolen Israeli artifact and its various pursuers, was ridiculous, incomprehensible and boring. There were two terrorist organizations after the artifact, neither one developed, two competing Israeli agents with zero personality, and two separate but indistinguishable TV-star antiquities experts, plus three down-home factions and even some FBI agents thrown in. Guys, that’s way too many characters. You know this. When you start thinking you need two of the same “type,” your book is off the rails.

I cannot believe that a writer as economical and skilled as Sandford even read this thing.

Another aspect that usually sets a Sandford book apart is the dialog and funny banter between the characters. This one tried, but missed, so Virgil was consistently weirdly (and not funnily) joking around during tense moments. Like, his Hezbollah informant decided to go out to a bar and pick up women while in the middle of betraying a dangerous Hezbollah operative and fearing for his life, and he and Virgil were all chatty about where he should go, the girls there, etc. Here’s a typically absurd bit of misplaced sexual banter, between two supporting characters:

“He said he had to go to Rochester—I don’t know what for.” “You believe him?”
“I asked him if he’d like to come over and go skinny-dipping, and he said he had to work. I know he likes to skinny dip so…I believe him. Hasn’t called me today.”
“Hmm. If I were younger, and not a minister, and not married, and not dying…anyway…”

Another thing that was dreadful was how Virgil was suddenly selectively enforcing the law, based on if he thought the criminal was really a bad person or not. Davenport’s mystique was that he knew the criminals well enough to use them, and broke some laws himself, but always in pursuit of justice. (This is a bad-boy-cop cliche, I realize, but it’s effective.) But, if I read the incomprehensible denouement of this book correctly, Virgil is letting guys he likes walk away with millions of dollars in stolen money, for no good reason. And also criminals with dying wives walk away with millions of dollars (I’m still not clear on where the money to ultimately support the stone-thief’s sick wife came from…), because the poor things needed it. It’s a farce.

There was so much more wrong with this book, I could go on forever. The beautifully drawn location in Minnesota, always a delight of a Sandford book, was totally absent. The prose was rotten, and clunked along like hell trying to explain the ridiculous plot twists. Who has the stone? Where is the stone? How is Ma getting the stone for the auction, and if Virgil knows she has it, why does he allow the auction? Here’s a paragraph of representative incoherence:

“Awad and al-Lubnani didn’t have to know about the Washington team. If Awad and al-Lubnani were actually planning to rip off the Hezbollah’s money, and he thought that likely, then he should be able to figure out a way to blackmail them into telling him the exchange point, using the Hachet as a sword hanging over their heads. ‘I’ll go on TV,’ he’d tell them, ‘and say you guys stole the money. Who’s Hezbollah going to believe–the guys who disappeared with three million in cash, or a cop? But give me the stone, and I’ll tell everybody that Jones got the money, and I’ll tell Washington about the Hachet, and no matter what happens then, he’ll no longer be a factor.’ “

I am hoping and praying that this disaster will be a wake-up call for the franchise, and that the Sandford team will get it together to get a ghostwriter who can write.

One Response to “34. Storm Front, John Sandford”


  1. Top 10 Best and Worst New Books (That I Read In) 2013 | An Anthology of Clouds - December 23, 2013

    […] 10. Storm Front, by “John Sandford” The death of a great line of police procedurals is worth noting, and mourning. No one ever said that John Sandford’s Prey series, or its spinoff starring the Virgil Flowers character, was great literature, but they were extremely well-written, well-plotted, very funny books with a pitch-perfect sense of place. Sandford has now gone the ghost-writing route and the fans, myself included, are screaming in horror as beloved characters stagger around, half-animated, like farcical zombie versions of themselves. If anything is an argument for good writing transcending genre, this is it. Sandford’s accomplishment, turns out, can’t be automated. […]

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