RogerBW's Blog

Rules of Prey, John Sandford 24 February 2020

1989 thriller, first in the long series dealing with police detective Lucas Davenport. Someone is raping and murdering women in Minneapolis, but unlike your typical serial killer this one is smart

Well. By the standards of characters in the book he's smart. But those standards also say that only Lucas ever gets to be right about anything.

Lucas is a millionaire from designing wargames (Charles S. Roberts would have loved to know how you manage that), and drives a Porsche to work. He's an "independent" lieutenant, working on whatever the hell he feels like. He sleeps with reporters and victims of crime. He takes multiple days off, during the search for a suspect, to go to a cabin in the woods. In fact, he's a full-blown Gary Stu, complete with the one not-particularly-important weakness: a fear of flying that comes up exactly once, and doesn't in fact prevent him from flying somewhere or affect him once he's off the plane.

He's also a tough guy who takes no shit from nobody: or, to put it another way, he makes illegal searches, plants evidence, and zheqref n xvyyre orpnhfr ur qbrfa'g jnag gur thl fheivivat va cevfba. This kind of rogue cop stuff doesn't sit well with me, but it can work… if the reader can thoroughly get behind said rogue as a good guy, can trust his judgement and go along with his decisions. Davenport plays dominance games with everyone and even his police colleagues don't seem to like him much, still less this reader, and his relationships are a mess even by 1980s cop story standards. (His reaction to anything approximating emotional talk is "oh Christ", followed by manipulating the woman into more sex. All right, this doesn't always work even in this book, but mostly it does.)

So this is a book with a deliberately unlikeable protagonist which doesn't work as a story unless you like the protagonist. (Many people do, apparently; there are thirty books in the series so far.) It's also a book with one of my less favourite tropes, the extended killer's-eye view; all right, this isn't meant to be a mystery, it's a thriller, so the reader knows who the bad guy is from the beginning (and there's some interest to be had from watching the police filters gradually refine the description of the suspect as more distinctive characteristics come to light). But this means we get lengthy accounts of not only the preparation for but the commission of the crimes, and I don't care how literarily necessary the Pulitzer-prize-winning Sandford thought it, I'm bored with reading details about the rape and sexualised torture and murder of women. (Well, of anyone, but it always seems to be women.)

There are bits that work; in particular, a description of a fumbled attempt to lure and capture the killer has some very effective depiction of the way small things going wrong can add up into disaster. But for each good bit there's something like the way one of the victims, a law student with a spinal injury who's using a wheelchair, is referred to by everyone including the supposedly-sympathetic narrator as "the cripple", and even in 1989 that was not a generally accepted usage.

All right, those of us who take an interest in this kind of thing (in my case, because I want to get it right in games) have now read Sexual Homicide: Patterns and Motives, which had only come out the previous year, and can spot the flaws in the portrayal of the killer; actual serial killers don't work quite that way. But that's a relatively minor annoyance compared with all the rest.

I put up with a lot in well-narrated audio books, but not only am I not going to read any more of these, I'd feel faintly uncomfortable around anyone who professed that they were wonderful.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 01:24pm on 24 February 2020

    "So, Mr Bell_West, you say you read this book because you wanted to get the details right for games.... Games you play mostly with other strange bearded men... Hmm, how very interesting..."

    As I said before Roger, when they finally come for you, I'll be somewhere else...

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:30pm on 24 February 2020

    And as I have said before, I trust that you will save yourself by dobbing me in.

    Actually I have often thought, when reading about serial killers, that if I were doing it I wouldn't make such obvious mistakes. But then of course if I had the psychological pressure to do it in the first place, I wouldn't be able to make that distinction: the things that to me are obvious mistakes are to them a key part of the mythology, of their reasons for doing the killing.

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