Cover image of "Rough Country" by John Sandford, which may be the best Virgil Flowers novel

Virgil Flowers is one of the most interesting characters in detective fiction today. He’s the top investigator in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. His boss, Lucas Davenport, gives him only the toughest cases. But he is in no way a stereotype. For one thing, he doesn’t like guns, and he hates shooting people. And in Rough Country, possibly the best Virgil Flowers novel, he is in especially fine form.

Virgil, the son of a preacher, “held unconventional beliefs, not necessarily Christian, but not necessarily un-Christian, either, derived from his years of studying nature, and his earlier years, his childhood years, with the Bible.” He hold a degree in environmental science from the University of Minnesota, reflecting his passion for the outdoors, and especially for fishing. Virgil has parlayed this hobby into a successful sideline as a writer for outdoors magazines. And recently he wrote a two-part series for the New York Times Magazine about a complex case he’d just solved. (That case was the subject of Heat Lightning, the compelling second book in the Virgil Flowers series.) As a result, Davenport says he’s “the most famous cop in Minnesota.”

Virgil has long blond hair and is obviously good-looking. He typically wears jeans and a T-shirt advertising an obscure rock band, seemingly a different one every day. Women are drawn to him, and he manages to fall in love with a beautiful young woman on just about every case. He’s been married, and divorced, three times.

Rough Country (Virgil Flowers #3) by John Sandford (2009) 404 pages ★★★★★ 

Rough Country opens with the murder of Erica McDill, a partner in a prominent Minneapolis advertising agency at a resort for women-only in the state’s lake country. Because the press and the politicians are all over the case, and because Virgil is on a fishing trip not far from the resort, Davenport assigns him to investigate the killing. It quickly emerges that McDill is a lesbian, as are many of the other women at the resort. Perhaps, then, some love affair gone bad explains the murder. But Virgil also learns that McDill was maneuvering to buy out her principal partner in the advertising agency—and planning to fire many of the staff once she gained control. Rumors about the firing were already making the rounds at the agency. To complicate matters further, McDill had tired of her partner, Ruth, who suspected she would be dumped. But there are also complicating factors involving the ownership of the resort, giving yet someone else a motive for the killing.

Naturally, we have faith in Virgil. We know he’s going to solve the case. But how he gets there is surprising at the least. And the conclusion is a shocker. I’ve enjoyed every one of the books I’ve read in this series. The dialogue is invariably clever and occasionally hilarious. But Rough Country may be John Sandford’s best Virgil Flowers novel.

Dark of the Moon, the first novel in the series, at In Virgil Flowers’ debut, arson, multiple murder, and a right-wing preacher. The second, Heat Lightning, is at “That f—ing Virgil Flowers,” Vietnam vets, the CIA, and a serial killer. In fact, you’ll find reviews of all of John Sandford’s excellent Virgil Flowers novels by clicking here.

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