When you’ve published 52 novels over the course of 30 years, one’s pre-fiction career might seem a bit irrelevant. In the case of John Sandford, it bears repeating.
Before he turned to writing mysteries at a prolific pace and selling millions, he was a journalist, and a very good one at that – indeed, he was a Pulitzer Prize winner. He won the Pulitzer for a 1985 newspaper series that followed a Minnesota farming family during the Midwest farm crisis.
I mention Sandford’s Pulitzer all these years later because while reading his latest book – the twelfth in his bestselling Virgil Flowers series – the impression is that of a work by an ever-curious journalist who knows how to report a story. It’s also a page-turning mystery, of course. When it comes to entertaining readers with a well-executed plot and lively characters, Sandford is world-class. However, it’s the reporting, the revealing of a subculture, that sets him apart.
In Bloody Genius (G.P. Putnam’s Sons), he covers brilliant, obsessive folks feuding on a university campus. It’s a vicious scene full of egos run amok, high-stakes research, and violent rivalry. As one character says, “There’s no meaner group in the world than academics when they get stirred up.”
At the heart of this mystery is one Barthelemy Quill. Smart, fanatical and trust fund rich, a narcissist par excellence, he’s the sort who churns through wives, neglects his kid and puts his work above all. He’s also got a few nasty habits.
When he’s murdered in the opening pages, late at night in a deserted library, a mystery woman by his side, there’s less weeping than wonder. What was he doing there? The library wasn’t even on his side of the campus. And on a Friday night, after midnight?
Then there’s the matter of the yoga mat on the floor of his private study carrel. It wasn’t there for Quill to practice his downward dog.
Virgil Flowers, of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is pulled into the case, reluctantly, when the state’s governor takes a personal interest. It turns out the deep-pocketed Quill was a donor. Virgil is asked to join forces with Minneapolis Homicide sergeant Margaret Trane, who’s none too happy to have the well-connected agent Flowers come swooping into her investigation. After some mutual reference checks, the pair admit the other seems alright, and off to the college they go.
They soon discover less-than-polite company and clues that do not add up. There’s the stash of cocaine hidden in Quill’s desk at home, except Barth was said to be a prude who looked down on any drug use. There’s the pissed-off Department of Cultural Science across campus, led by professor Katherine Green who loathed Quill. (For good reason, it seems; Quill did call her a “silly tw*t” in a public setting.)
Professor Quill, being a man of medicine, looked down on many things, but none with more derision than the study of “cultural science.” Was it enough to get him killed? Well, Professor Green does have an acolyte with a crush on her, a Ph.D. candidate who happens to be former Army.
Then, there are the women in Quill’s life. His latest soon-to-be ex-wife signed an iron-clad prenup, but should her husband wind up dead before the divorce goes through. She’s in line for millions – some might say the finest motive there is. And what’s going on with Quill’s college-aged daughter, Megan? The girl is a sexed-up mess with evident daddy issues and dubious taste in men.
The world of academia has long been an irresistible setting for mysteries. PD James’ revered novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman comes to mind, as does Megan Abbott’s latest, Give Me Your Hand, which was set in a cutthroat research lab and featured, in Abbot fashion, the murderous dynamics between high-achieving women. With Bloody Genius, John Sandford joins their ranks, with a campus mystery that presents the ugly undercurrents of a university rife with egos, anger – and suspects.
Bloody Genius is now available for purchase.
About John Sandford
John Sandford is the pseudonym of John Roswell Camp, an American author and journalist. Camp won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 1986, and was one of four finalists for the prize in 1980. He also was the winner of the Distinguished Writing Award of the American Society of Newspaper Editors for 1985.
Camp is the author of thirty-one published novels, all of which have appeared, in one format or another, on the New York Times Best-Seller lists. He is also the author of two non-fiction books, one on plastic surgery and one on art. His books have been translated into most European languages, as well as Japanese and Korean. He is the principal sponsor of a major archaeological dig in Israel, and is on the board of directors of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research.