In 'Mad River,' A Friendly Cop Tackles Rural Crime

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John Sandford has written his own five-foot shelf of novels and thrillers, most of them as part of the "Prey" series. Almost all of the books are set in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

His cast of characters has changed and shifted somewhat over time, but largely features Minnesota cops. The plots are centered around Lucas Davenport, a kind of superstar investigator who ages a little from book to book and has a checkered career with a bit of a bad boy reputation – one that has not prevented him from becoming a high ranking official in state law enforcement.

But several years ago, John Sandford switched gears and introduced a new character — Virgil Flowers. Flowers is a rural Minnesota cop who works for Lucas Davenport, but in some ways picks up where Davenport leaves off.

Sandford says one of the reasons he created Flowers was because Davenport got married and had kids. "Most people like a little sex in their novels," he tells Weekend Edition host Linda Wertheimer. "And the problem with Davenport was that he could no longer chase women because that would make him a bad guy, and your hero can't be a bad guy in that way."

The other reason was more charitable: "A lot of my friends were retiring from the newspaper business, and the newspaper pensions are not enormous," Sandford says. So he and a bunch of friends got together to lay out the plot and characters; Sandford would then write it into a novel. "Then we would get the money from the book and split it. The idea was to give my friends this last shot of cash before Social Security kicked in."

Sandford is also writing two books a year, churning out about 220,000 words. "And honest to God, I can't do that. I really do need the help of other people working with me."

Interview Highlights

On why Virgil Flowers was sent out to the country:

"Davenport has pretty much got the twin cities nailed down. I've always been sort of interested in the rural countryside. Things happen out there that are very strange to city dwellers. If you actually hang out in the countryside, which I did, it's actually quite peaceful. They don't have a lot of crime in the countryside other than theft. But every once in a while, things turn ugly, and when they turn ugly, they turn very ugly.

On why Flowers' doesn't keep his investigations confidential:

"Virgil is the kind of guy who can stand on a street corner and have a long, complicated conversation with people he doesn't know, because he's a friendly guy. Part of that has grown out of my own irritation with the cops, who are doing an investigation and they can't tell you about something. Why can't they tell you about it? The criminal knows about it, they know about it, so why shouldn't they tell the public? Why not just tell people? So that's what Virgil does.

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