Ilsa Bick's Reviews > Rough Country

Rough Country by John Sandford
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Oct 15, 2009

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Read in October, 2009

I want to make one thing clear: This review is not an extended moan about how I wish Mr. Sandford would write more Lucas Davenport books. He hasn't abandoned Lucas--for which I'm grateful--but in his push to establish another series, I think Mr. Sandford would do well to take a step back and re-read one of the interviews he did early on about his PREY series: how he wrote the book in a kind of trance and really was at pains to make Lucas a real, fleshed-out character.

Regardless of reading trends and attention spans, I honestly believe that readers CRAVE a world into which they can disappear. As Mr. Sandford's career has evolved--and more specifically over the last six, seven years--his writing style has become sparer and sparser and this does not serve him or his books well.

Now, I've not finished this book and I'll likely post another review, but my initial thoughts dovetail with my reservations about all the Flowers books. I've been reading Sandford books from the beginning--in fact, I've read them all and several more than once--and what I've noticed is that he's sacrificed strong characterization and description for name-dropping. This has started to creep into his Lucas books as well, but if you go back and compare the early Lucas Davenport novels to Mr. Sandford's later work, you see a disturbing trend. There is no one better at setting mood and atmosphere; take a peek at the beginning of most any PREY book and you know where you are, what the weather's like, how things feel and smell, what they look like. Furthermore, Lucas Davenport is a complex, compelling character with contradictory impulses. Even the minor characters get their due.

Here and with all the Flowers books, we get names--lots and lots of names. A dizzying PLETHORA of names. But they are merely monikers without faces. Mr. Sandford has continued to cut back on his exposition and focused primarily on dialogue and short takes to propel his chapters. Sometimes this works; most times, it doesn't, and the reading experience becomes choppy and confusing and--most importantly--distancing. (Try getting into a reading rhythm with any of Koontz's latest and you'll see what I mean.) Virgil Flowers remains pretty uninteresting and not at all complex or subtle, and I have NO IDEA--even after several books--of what his "thinking about God" schtick is REALLY about. Yeah, yeah, there's an "explanation" of sorts in the first book, but without more meat to this character, this means as much to me as the name-dropping of bands does: I don't know who the bands are, I don't know what they sound like, and --worse-- I DON'T CARE!!

WICKED PREY was, I think, Mr. Sandford's best Lucas book since BROKEN PREY, and his works that have focused on the weave of Lucas's life are still among his best. Pick up something like WINTER PREY--a hands-down fabulous book because it's all about relationships, man--and then compare that to ROUGH COUNTRY and you'll see exactly what I mean.

Will I buy the next Sandford? Of course, I will because I'm an optimist and Mr. Sandford is a superior writer when he remembers that it's people we care about. And, considering that people don't necessarily retire all that early any more, there's not a reason in the world why Lucas has to go away any time soon. For that matter, giving Virgil Flowers a real life and face would kick this series up another notch and make Virgil someone we can care about.

10/18/09--Okay, so I've finished the book now and my initial impression hasn't changed much. I will echo those reviewers who mentioned that they were way ahead of Virgil by the end (moi, aussi), though I DID not see a final plot twist coming, and that was nicely done. But my points about the dearth of characterization still stand. Lucas Davenport was/is, in part, defined by the people around him. Virgil Flowers, being the lone wolf, simply drifts from situation to situation. T-shirt schtick and surfer hair aside, there's nothing substantive to the guy, and I still don't care about him one iota. The fact that he was unfulfilled at the end? Huge yawn. In every single one of the PREY books, you really CARE about the people--girlfriends, colleagues, etc.--in Lucas's orbit. Here, it's hard to care about anyone. These people read like cardboard cutouts, easily interchangeable, and I'm sure we'll see them again, with different names, in the next Flowers book.

I also noticed that Sandford seemed to have trouble deciding exactly how to handle the killer's POV. That is, we'd get small snippets, a chapter here or there (two or three, I think), but nothing consistent. Now, that's not BAD, but it's not very engaging either. One of the things Sandford does better than any other writer is giving us parallel stories with multiple POVs. In BROKEN PREY, where the thing was a true mystery even though we kept getting the killer's POV, he pulled this off brilliantly. In those PREY books where we know the killer's identity but Lucas doesn't, he does it again--brilliantly. In this book, I see flashes of that technique, but it's not sustained and so fitful in execution that I can't figure exactly why he bothered doing it in the first place, other than for us to understand the why (of a shooting, for example) and then watch/wait for Virgil to catch up. Again, in the PREY books, this works very well. Here, it doesn't.
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