Bloody Genius by John Sandford (2019)
Virgil Flowers is a detective with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension like no other. He grows his blonde hair kinda long and wears jeans and rock band t-shirts. He likes to fish and rarely carries a firearm preferring a shotgun when he has to use a weapon as he’s a crap shot with a handgun. But Virgil is a top-notch investigator. He gets the job done, and with a certain country-boy panache.
When he gets his instructions to look into the murder of a well-known university academic, brutally beaten in a college library, Virgil knows it’s going to be tough going. For one thing, the case is weeks old and he’s been called in as the local cops have hit a dead-end. Not that they’re happy to see him intrude upon their investigation, but the dead man was connected to the state governor and so Virgil’s gotta do what Virgil’s gotta do.
Professor Barthelemy Quill was a man of mystery in Minneapolis circles of academia. With degrees and a doctorate in both biomedicine and biorobotics, his department at the university was well-funded and carried serious clout. Barth, as he was sometimes known, organised experimental surgical procedures, pushing the bounds of medical science. It gave Quill a high profile and quite a wage packet to add to his considerable inheritance. Nice for some.
But Professor Quill had enemies, not least those in the Department of Cultural Science, headed up by the beautiful yet formidable Katherine Green. Quill had rubbished Green’s work which led to a violent confrontation between members of both departments and students. Virgil must figure out if it was enough to cause one of them to kill Quill in the dead of night in a library. Sounds a bit like Cluedo.
Flowers is helped in his investigations (or are they her investigations?) by Minneapolis police detective, Maggie Trane. Although initially hostile to Flowers, she eventually warms to him as she comes to realise that Virgil really does know what he’s doing and is prepared to cooperate fully with her. They soon form a strong team, bouncing ideas off one another and sharing the workload. Their queries quickly turn up results and momentum is created. Trane is relieved.
But the further they dig, the more suspects keep turning up. Green has a couple of mature students who have military backgrounds and are capable of killing. Flowers needs to get deep into their backgrounds which is not so easy. Then there are Quill’s ex-wives, three in total. The last one is set to benefit substantially from his death, a sure reason for killing Quill, but she has an airtight alibi.
The dead professor also had one child, a daughter at college who had little time for him. Megan Quill seems unusually unconcerned that her father was murdered. Instead, she hangs with a couple of slackers, one of whom she shags, the other, a serious gamer with a weight problem, she teases with glimpses of her punnani (as Ali G terms it). Flowers is amazed at the levels of bohemian sexual conduct he finds when visiting the three. It doesn’t help that his girlfriend, Frankie, is about to give birth to twins, Flowers first foray into the scary world of parenthood. It’s all happening for Virgil Flowers.
With such a list of suspects, and nothing stolen from the murder scene other than an expensive and very powerful laptop, which is believed to have been the murder weapon, Virgil is beginning to tear his blonde hair out in frustration. But his hipster approach pays dividends as he, with Trane, manage to whittle down their list of suspects. But are they on course to close the case, or merely grasping in the dark due to desperation? You’ll have to read it to find out as this is too good a book to spoil with answers to that.
What Rebel Voice can reveal is that John Sandford does not write bad books. In the world of literature, modern or otherwise, Sandford is an A-lister. His plots are sublime. His pacing is exquisite. His characters are not only believable but consistent and extremely interesting. Virgil Flowers is probably one of the most likeable and engaging protagonists in any series today. Sandford maintains a heady rhythm throughout Bloody Genius, but there is much humour interspersed. He has a knack for perfect timing and observational perfection. For example, in this story Virgil casually watches locals in a supermarket car park as they wryly observe what might be a UFO, until Virgil uses his binoculars and confirms that its an advertising blimp. The scene has nothing to do with the main story, yet the dialogue between the people is real and laughable, as it would be in real life. John Sandford does more to promote a positive image of the citizenry of the USA than any government there ever has, or likely ever will.
As the story progresses, the twists and turns increase. Suspects come and go. Locals get a chance to throw in their tuppence worth, as usual in a Virgil Flowers story. We are guided in one direction before being taken gently by the elbow and pointed in another. And all the while we will have a cheesy smile on our book-reading faces. Sandford is a master wordsmith.
This novel works on many levels as there are many concurrent threads. The ties to Lucas Davenport are drawn upon, which is a favourite tactic of Rebel Voice. It can be great to read two separate series that are often connected, if only slightly these days. Davenport has moved on from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to the US Marshall’s Service. But he remains in close contact with Virgil and this friendship pops up on a regular basis throughout both story-lines. It breeds a strong familiarity for the avid reader of Sandford stories.
There is also the not so small matter of Virgil about to become a father for the first. Frankie is a central character in her own right. Her family could command any reader’s attention and their involvement with Flowers adds to the entire spectacle. Sandford manages to take mundane aspects of ordinary life and turn them into something intriguing. Farming becomes an opportunity for Virgil to try to avoid work, not being the farming type. Yet he will do it, as his love for Frankie is stronger than any aversion to working in the fields. It makes for a gentle yet solid romance.
If there is one factor in the novels of John Sandford that, for Rebel Voice, stands out more than most others, it’s that the characters are real people, not some Disneyesque fantasy or production-line manufacture. Bloody Genius is a slice of US life set within a murder investigation. The cops are not all hard-asses, but they’re not all good either. They’re closer to the truth of who cops in the US are. The personalities in the story run true in the way they relate to one another, to Virgil, and to society as a whole. It’s this, perhaps more than anything else, that makes Sandford stories among the best to be found today or any day. Rebel Voice can give no greater compliment than that.
Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. This series, and any series by John Sandford (real name John Camp) is consistently one of the best out there. Great plots, personalities, dialogue, action and vibe, the Virgil Flowers books are must-reads for those who know their novels. Bloody Genius is the latest masterclass in modern fiction from an alpha of that sector. Highly recommended by Rebel Voice.