Author scores with 14th 'Prey' detective thriller

John Sandford turns cop reporting experience into lucrative book career

— Even after winning a Pulitzer Prize, reporter John Camp realized it wasn't enough to put his two kids through college.

So he quit his job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, refashioned himself as mystery writer John Sandford and began writing a series of detective thrillers featuring a stylish cop named Lucas Davenport.

The 14th installment, "Naked Prey," debuted in May at the top of best-seller lists. It's the third time a Sandford hardcover book has hit No. 1 on The New York Times list, after "Easy Prey" in 2000 and "Chosen Prey" in 2001. And it's the first time he's debuted at No. 1. The paperback version of Sandford's last book, "Mortal Prey," also is on best-seller lists.

"You can teach yourself how to write thrillers the same way you can teach yourself how to write journalism," says Sandford, who compares himself to a carpenter when it comes to constructing his novels. "It's simply a different kind of writing."

In "Naked Prey," Davenport finds himself yanked out of Minneapolis and plunged into a mystery in the flatlands of far northwestern Minnesota. The naked bodies of a black man and a white woman are found hanging from a tree, and it's up to Davenport -- now the governor's political "fixer" -- to quell talk of a lynching.

Like all of Sandford's books, "Naked Prey" opens with a bang as the killer ambushes his victims in a small town during a blizzard.

Sandford says it's critical to hook the reader with the first page. To do that, he skips context and relies instead on action.

"Things are already going. The guy's already in the car and he's following a woman and he's got a shotgun and something terrible is about to happen. How can you stop reading at that point?" he says.

Sandford also says he puts "sensual stuff" in the first few paragraphs -- especially how things taste and smell -- to draw in the reader.

"So if you say that, 'He walked into a place, and it smelled like marijuana and pizza,' it gives you an immediate image ... that you're talking about something kind of cheap and drug-soaked," he says.

His detective character, Davenport, creates computer games and favors expensive suits. In "Naked Prey," he's also dealing with some changes in his life: He now works for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and he has a new wife and baby.

Sandford calls Davenport a composite of cops and movie stars, such as Clint Eastwood.

"This is a construction, and it's not an inspiration. It's like carpentry. 'Davenport is tall, rich, good-looking, blue-eyed, drives a Porsche, chases women, likes to fight, carries a gun,"' Sandford says.

Write what you know

Those qualities impress both men and women, Sandford says. "There aren't any people like this, or very few of them. I've never met one," he says. Sandford himself is tall -- 6 feet, 2 inches -- with white hair and white eyebrows. He was dressed casually in jeans and a dark shirt.

If he were casting a movie, Sandford says he would choose Daniel Day-Lewis -- a "tough, slender guy" -- to play Davenport, who resembles NBA coach Pat Riley -- slicked-back hair, sharp suits and a hawkish face.

But even though he's a movie buff, Sandford isn't interested in seeing his creation brought to the big screen, and he says he really didn't like the 1999 ABC-TV version of "Mind Prey," which featured Eriq La Salle of "E.R." as Davenport.

"One of the problems with the movies is I don't care enough about them. And you actually have to kind of care to really get things done. You have to kind of schmooze a little bit, and you have to talk to people," he says.

Instead, Sandford prefers the solitude of his downtown St. Paul office, where he can work from 10 p.m. until 2 in the morning, a habit carried over from his late nights working at morning newspapers.

His cluttered office even looks like a newsroom. On the shelves sit copies of his own books as well as books about cops and crime. Framed posters of his book jackets are in the hallway, and on the walls are huge maps of Minnesota, including one next to his computer terminal.

Giving readers a sense of place is critical, says Sandford, who set all his previous novels in Minneapolis, except for one in northern Wisconsin.

"I think people can figure out that I sort of know what I'm talking about. It's not just something I made up," he says.

"I've been in half the towns in Minnesota, probably," adds Sandford, a native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who worked for the Pioneer Press for 12 years. He transferred to the St. Paul newspaper in 1978 from The Miami Herald and in 1986 won a Pulitzer for a series on a southwestern Minnesota farm family.

But even with a pay raise after winning a Pulitzer, Sandford says he couldn't afford to put his son and daughter through college. He wrote two nonfiction books -- one about Minnesota watercolorist John Stuart Ingle, the other a collaboration with surgeon Bruce Cunningham of the University of Minnesota about plastic surgery -- before turning to thrillers.

"I knew about cops. I'd been covering cops for a long time. I did crime stories every year of my life," says Sandford, a fan of mystery writers Ross Thomas, Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald.

Writing brand

He chose the pen name Sandford, his great-grandfather's name, and in 1989 published "Rules of Prey," about a serial killer with his own rules for selecting victims. The book sold well for a first novel and led to the "Prey" franchise, with a new book almost each year. (The book's titles are chosen by Putnam editor-in-chief Neil Nyren. "He only has to think of one word, like, you know, 'Naked,' " Sandford says.)

Putnam says there are 403,000 hardcover copies of "Naked Prey" in print, while 1.3 million paperback copies of "Mortal Prey" are in print, for a total of over 1.7 million.

"After a while you become a brand name, and that always helps because fans are looking for you and they sort of know what they're going to get," Sandford says.

By writing seven days a week, it takes Sandford seven to eight months to write a book. He says he'll finish his next "Prey" book -- set on northeastern Minnesota's Iron Range and involving an old network of Russian spies -- in early December. "The Hanged Man's Song," the next book in his other series about a computer genius and artist named Kidd, comes out Nov. 10.

And Sandford has "a different intellectual life," as an archaeologist. He's about to leave for the Tel Rehov project, a dig he sponsors in northeastern Israel. He'll spend the next seven weeks there.

At 59, Sandford wonders how long he'll continue writing.

"But what's a writer supposed to do?" he asks. "It's not like working for a company, where you are looking forward to a time when you've got some freedom."


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