Reviewed in the United States on October 12, 2019
Yes, you read that headline right. The good news about BLOODY GENIUS is that it has that magical John Sandford thing that makes the pages turn, like the hand that can't stop itself from continuing to reach into that bag of potato chips long after you've started to feel a bit full and even edging into gassy queasiness. Sandford is like Lee Child or Robert Crais in that regard — his books are full of tasty but empty calories, the staples that create Literary Bovine America. But for all that, there are a lot of authors out there who make better meals with better ingredients, but each bite tastes like unfinished algebra homework.
The bad news is that the Virgil Flowers series, intended as a fresh free-range-hero series reboot after Sandford's Lucas Davenport series started to go stale, is starting to go stale — and for the same reasons as its predecessor's fate. The Davenport books lost a lot of their steam when its ridiculously frontloaded hero — sexy, smart AND rich! — settled down with one woman. For a while Sandford tried to carry that off by having Davenport and whatever woman he was working with share unfulfilled smoldering, but when that shift got stuck in a cul-de-sac, Sandford shifted up to make Davenport more of a global-stakes thriller hero, and left me behind in the process.
For much of what makes the best Sandford novels work is its window into Quirky Minnesota, a negative image of Guy Noir from Lake Wobegon and "A Prairie Home Companion." There are the small towns struggling to pick pockets of wealth wherever they may be found, the strange offshoot religions with secretive rituals, the farmers who have to get illegally creative to hang on, the multiple generations of families who have lived up each others' asses for too long to murderous effect. All with all the sex you can eat, like the suspiciously glisteny stuff under sneeze guards and heat lamps at Applebee's.
That is largely the appeal of Virgil Flowers, a more downmarket version of Davenport, a range rider of sorts for the Minnesota Bureau of Apprehension who is usually sent to small town to investigate some sort of strange crime with sonorously dark undertones. He's a shaggy-haired anti-heroic hero with drawly sex appeal who gets to know a cast of a dozen or so per story, circling back to them again and again, befriending them, occasionally bedding them, until one pops loose with a gun or a bomb or a knife, lather, rinse, repeat. It's a great formula — Peak Flowers occurred in a novel about eight deep in the series in which he investigated a cheerfully, murderously corrupt small-town school board.
But by the time of BLOODY GENIUS, Flowers is happily settled into a relationship with a woman he hardly ever sees, a woman pregnant with his twins, a farmer mother of five already who is dryly-funny-sexy in the classic Sandford tradition but doesn't really register, because, duty calls. In this case, the big city — Minneapolis, aka Davenport's turf — and BLOODY GENIUS suffers a bit for its lack of remove from the real world. There's too many people, and that means too many characters, and too many of the more interesting ones are left too unexplored (such as Dr. Green, the sexy thirtysomething professor who stirs up academic controversy, who would have gotten co-starring status in the book and the bedroom in an earlier, earthier Flowers story). That's doubly unfortunate, for the killer is someone who hadn't gotten much page time until the unmasking, and for good reason, as the character just isn't very interesting.
(A side note: Sandford has a somewhat retrograde view of women, and it shows to particularly obnoxious effect in BLOODY GENIUS, in which a possible suspect — a teen girl — regularly torments a male friend with look-but-don't-touch flashes between her legs. It has the queasy effect of imbuing the male friend with a measure of sympathy as an incel, and that's not something that anybody wants or needs to read in 2019.)
In all, BLOODY GENIUS is a pallid entry in a series that's reaching a tipping point. Nobody wanted Homebody Davenport, and nobody wants Farmer Spouse Flowers, either. So, what to do? Kill off the love interest? Sandford correctly divined that killing off Davenport's wife would repel his readers, so presumably that's out. Go global-stakes like Davenport and send Flowers around the country, or around the world to do his troubleshooty thing? That would kill the real appeal of the Flowers series -- the tours of the dark corners of rural Minnesota. Sandford's seriously stuck here, and it says something uncomplimentary about him that he could not see the problem coming and sidestep it.
Of course, Sandford doesn't have to do anything but what he's doing. His fan base is secure, loyal, large and likely will follow him anywhere.