By Heidi Simmons
For common, everyday, good, and decent people, evil is difficult to comprehend. It is so irrational that when we hear about it, we find it unbelievable. They become campfire or slumber party staples. In John Sandford’s Gathering Prey (Putnam, 416 pages), horrendous nightmares are chased down and confronted.
Detective Lucas Davenport works for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. His position allows him to travel across the US to hunt down the most dangerous offenders. He is a seasoned professional. A little jaded perhaps and fed up with department politics, Davenport is not intimidated by bad guys and bureaucrats.
When Davenport’s daughter, Letty, a freshman at Stanford University, befriends Travelers — Skye and Henry — in San Francisco, she is intrigued by their vagabond lifestyle. Harmless, the two earn money by busking and pan-handling as they move across the country.
After Letty buys Skye and Henry burgers and gives them some cash, they share brief intimacies about their difficult childhoods. Now with some common ground and mutual respect, Letty gives them her cell number after they confide travel plans that include passing through Letty’s home state of Minnesota over the summer.
But most disturbing to Letty is the story of Pilate who Skye calls the devil. Pilate has a cult following in California and Skye thinks they are not just dangerous but deadly. Henry is enamored with Pilot because he believes Pilate can get him into the film business. Skye hopes to never cross paths with Pilate and his disciples again.
As Travelers, Skye and Henry hitch across the country camping and attending music festivals. They join with a subculture of Juggalos who gather in rural fields, paint their faces and party. When Henry goes missing, Skye calls Letty.
Confiding in her detective father, Letty shares some of the stories Skye has told her about Pilate. Davenport knows Travelers can’t be believed. But when he meets Skye, as crazy as it all sounds, he knows there is truth to her story.
With Letty’s help, Davenport discovers that Pilate and his disciples are insatiable serial killers. Pursuing the cult in Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Michigan and Minnesota, Letty and Davenport get closer than they ever thought possible to the face of evil.
Sandford’s 25th Prey novel is my first experience with Detective Davenport and his Prey series. Without any previous knowledge of the detective, I liked him and his daughter Letty right away. They’re smart, brave, arrogant and a little crazy; but, that’s what makes them fascinating and fun.
Author Sandford clearly has a handle on the ins-and-outs of Davenport ‘s life. Dropping him into chaos is how the character loves to roll. Sandfords’s writing style is easy and uncomplicated. Well-defined voices are broken up with lots of space and quick chapters. Police procedures don’t bog down the storytelling but enhance it.
Testosterone burns hard and fast as local law enforcement in the rural community steps up to form a posse. Donavan is renewed when he sees the competence of the brave and capable folks in a shoot-out with the bad guys.
I was most intrigue by Letty’s past. Adopted by Davenport after her own family failed her, she has more than a father in Davenport – they are kindred spirits. This complicates the story. When Letty gets into serious trouble with Pilate, Davenport is now not only detective, but a concerned and enraged father. Their partnership in crisis ups the stakes.
I liked the father-daughter duo. But after a beating, Letty mostly leaves the action. The finale includes an exciting car chase with Letty driving her father’s Porche with him as a passenger.
Gathering Prey tells a gruesome and graphic tale of killers who have no regard for human life. They prey on the lost. Pain and suffering is their elixir. They have a leader who is an idiot, a coward and a liar. But still, Pilot’s disciples believe his nonsensical cultish bullshit. I admit though, I enjoyed dropping in on this despicable group.
Throughout the story, there is a subtle but powerful debate about the taking of human life. Good and bad characters share what it feels like to kill another human being — even Letty has a confession.
Evil is closer than we think. I’d like to know more about Donavan’s past. I’m sure going back into the series would reveal quite a bit about the man. Mostly, I look forward to what Letty and her father do next. Can Donavan really retire? We shall see. I hope not.
Congratulations to John Sandford on the silver anniversary of the #1 New York Times bestselling Prey series.