Phantom Prey – John Sandford

PPJS There are times when I simply want to engage in a well-written, easy-read fast-paced thriller, (call it "comfort-blanket-with-pin-ends-in-every-thread" kind of reading), and John Sandford's Prey series has always managed to fit that bill for me.

The last one I read – Broken Prey – left me with the feeling that the series protagonist, Lucas Davenport would benefit from retirement, especially now that he'd had so much of a lifestyle change.  In the intervening years, I've managed to miss Invisible Prey; so for once, with Phantom Prey, I was reading out of sequence.  Not that it made much difference when it came to accepting Lucas as the new and true family man on this outing; he's so perfectly ensconced in that role and with so much credibility, accepting him and the circumstances was easy.

On to the plot.  There's a troubling unsolved case hanging around and Weather, wife of Lucas is friendly with the mother of the victim.  Alyssa Austin, recently widowed, returns home to a set of suspicious circumstances.  She expects to find her daughter there, but doesn't.  After drawing her gun, she notices some streaks of blood in the hall and calls the police.  Her daughter Frances is soon confirmed as missing.  Lucas reluctantly agrees to look at the case after Weather's urging.

Frances was involved with a group of Goths and soon, others in the group are found dead.  There is one, nicknamed the "fairy" by the remaining Goths, who has been on the periphery, flirting in and out with the gang and Lucas cannot trace her.

As always, Sandford's writing style (lean and mean with great respect to human emotion) had me reading to the end and quickly.  But, with this outing too, I remained disappointed at the end.  In this case it was entirely due to the dénouement.  For me it was unconvincing and perhaps, the easy route to take, along a road much travelled before, in crime and thriller novels.  That said, for character development over the series this novel fitted well, but it did not have the magic of earlier novels.

If you haven't read Sandford's Prey series, I recommend you start at the beginning and the author's site conveniently lists them here, from the top down.  Lucas Davenport is a charismatic creation: a high achiever both outside the police and in, making money from computer games in his earlier days; someone who has remained loyal to a friend who became a nun and his consultant on some cases; a fearless soul with one exception when it comes to flying, but he makes up for it with his Porsche.  I believe the earlier novels were more graphic with violence and with Lucas more ready for a scrap, hence the scars he develops over the years. 

I have loved this series and I'm not sure it's over yet, but Sandford's latest is Dark of the Moon, concentrating on Virgil Flowers.  A second novel in this series Heat Lightning (not yet available in the UK) does have mention of Lucas in the synopsis.  I have a sneaking suspicion that Sandford may be performing a very successful segue with series characters here?  And the first of this type?  Do let me know what you think or actually know.  I'd be most interested to hear.

In conclusion: not the best of the Prey series with Phantom Prey by any stretch of the imagination, even if it makes for a pretty good read but with a grumbling appendix sort of ending.

But, don't try this author on this novel if you've never read this series before and specifically want to read this series.  Start at the beginning with Rules of Prey.  It's explosive and can easily get you hooked.  Just as sherbert once did to you as a child, or candyfloss at the local fair.  Where Lucas was created as a true human dynamo, he moved on to being dynamic and in his later days, but in different ways and someone who might prefer cruise control, but only when the moment is right.  That's an arc of good character development over a long running series and sign of real ageing.

But please, I beg of you, do not read Phantom Prey before you read any other Sandford for this series, as you will be disappointed and the risks of you missing such a good author and a great series are immense.  Please see the advice in the above papragraphs and enjoy.  If you follow it, I am confident you will find another great series and another great author.  As for the possible original series characters' segue?  I am on to it and looking up the next books right now…

8 thoughts on “Phantom Prey – John Sandford

  1. Tom Bale

    I’ve not yet read Phantom Prey, but even if you found it slightly disappointing I’d thoroughly recommend Invisible Prey. I thought it was as strong as any in the series. I’ve recently gone back and re-read some of the early books, and it’s interesting to see how Davenport’s character became a lot less brutal as the series developed. I think you might be right about a second series character. Dark of the Moon was certainly a promising start, though I wouldn’t say it was quite at the level of the “Prey” books in general. But I’d also recommend that anyone new to reading John Sandford starts with the early novels. I’ve always felt he’s been sadly overlooked in this country – his books combine the great characterisation and settings of the best police procedurals with the pace and plotting of the best thrillers. In my view he should be out-selling James Patterson, Dan Brown and the like!

  2. Maxine

    I hate the titles of these books – snappy they may be but I can never remember which I have read when the next one comes out, as they are all too similar. I have read quite a few of the series and agree, they are generally very enjoyable and I think under-rated.

  3. Maxine

    Agreed, Tom, there are several authors like this – Peter Temple is another one. Why aren’t they best-sellers when you look at Brown and Patterson?
    (There are also crime best-sellers who deserve to be there, eg Crais, Connelly and Coben.)

  4. Awua

    Save for one rather large problem, I love the Prey series.
    The writing is usually good, fast-paced (although I wish Sandford would overcome his affection for the run-on sentence). The plots are done well enough (although a seasoned mystery reader can usually figure out the little detail in Chaper 3 that warranted more attention than it got). But the very best part of the series is that the villains are almost always YOWZA! freaky and evil.
    However…
    The dragon in the room is the main character. To me, Lucas Davenport is one of the most disgusting lead characters in the thriller genre. I know Sandford said that Davenport would never get away with the stuff he does in real life, that he’s a “movie star” of a character, but… He’s so movie star he’s as shallow and two-dimensional as one, and he goes too far over the line in nearly every novel. There’s bending the rules, like Harry Bosch or John Rebus do, and then there’s shattering them until they’re meaningless, Davenport’s specialty. He has as much remorse as a psychopath after the awful things he does. Too often, it seems like the only thing separating Davenport from the killers he chases is the badge he wears. I simply cannot sympathize with him. In a few of the books, a part of me has even rooted for the bad guys to get away/outsmart Lucas, just to bring him down a few pegs. You’re not supposed to root for the bad guys!
    The repulsive lead character is the only reason this series is in my second-tier of favorite mystery series, rather than top-tier, like Bosch, Rebus, Milhone, Banks and Warshawski. It’s why I wait until the Prey books hit the bargain bins before buying. A shame, really, because I want to like the series.

  5. frosty7530

    Hi, this is my 1st visit to your blog. I am currently in 1st 1/3 of Phantom Prey & really enjoying it! It’s my 1st John Sandford bk. I’m glad to know you enjoy his writings, perhaps when I finish the bk. I will find more agreement with you, but for now, it’s the first really enjoyable read I’ve had in ages! I had read another mystery in a goth culture setting & was so disapponted! (author was Lisa Jackson, it was first (and probably last bk. of hers I will read, not up to my standards at all).
    I am a 61 yr. old ex-hippy & very fascinated with goth sub-culture. 20 yrs ago, at age 40, I felt too self-conscious to explore it, at Grandma-age, I feel anything goes, & who has to know what I explore on PC & on written page! I also enjoy mysterys, my favs are Tess Gerritson, Jonathan Kellerman & Tami Hoag. There are lots of talented writers & not enough time.
    Could it be a disinterest in a goth setting that may have turned you somewhat off to the book? I’ll have to check out some of Sandford’s earlier work.

  6. cfr

    Frosty,
    Do check out Sandford’s earlier work as I think there are some better novels there. I just didn’t find this one of his best in the series. The Goth useage did not put me off; I just found the story a bit Sandford-lite.
    If you are interested in Goth try out this one also: Season of the Witch from Natasha Mostert. More info here:
    http://itsacrime.typepad.com/its_a_crime_or_a_mystery/2007/06/season-of-the-w.html
    It’s set in London and is very atmospheric, mixing a bit of crime with witchery and magic.
    Thanks for visiting!

  7. Kerry Kleiber

    Sandford has three major series (that I know of; I claim no expertise here): Kidd, Davenport, and Virgil (“That f-ing”) Flowers. What I especially like about the three series is that, while they are not very closely connected (Davenport and Flowers come the closest), they are of all one world. Jeffrey Deaver is beginning to do that, too. (And, so is Faye Kellerman with her husband Jonathan’s series. And, Jonathan has been doing it for a while with characters he’s developed in his Delaware series.)
    I really like the trend. Not quite sure why, but I guess just because it makes for a comforrtable setting with familiar characters.

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