Cover image of "Bad Blood" by John Sandford, a novel about a religious cult and child abuse

Any aspiring mystery and thriller writer would do well to study John Sandford‘s Virgil Flowers novels. The ten books Sandford has written to date (as of March 2018) display several of the characteristics that make them all candidates for the bestseller lists. Bad Blood, the fourth novel in the series, shows them all.

Like so many other thrillers Sandford has written (there are 28 in his other series, the Prey novels), Bad Blood‘s plot revolves around a topic that has recently surfaced in the national news: child abuse inside a religious cult. Numerous child abuse cases among Jehovah’s Witnesses have come to the attention of law enforcement officials in several countries. The church has refused to share information about the alleged abuse with authorities. The practices of the cult Sandford describes in Bad Blood are apparently far more extreme, and there are no strong similarities between the two faith systems, but the provocative topic nonetheless brings to mind those real-world cases.

A hero like no other in suspense fiction

The protagonist, Virgil Flowers, is like no other character in mystery and suspense fiction. He’s colorful to an extreme—interesting, in other words. He’s a cop who hates guns. He moonlights as a magazine writer. He wears a different T-shirt every day, each of them featuring the logo of an obscure rock band. He has a college degree in environmental science. He’s been married and divorced three times, but he falls in love with a different woman in every novel. (In Bad Blood, the new love interest is the sheriff of the county where Virgil is now working.) And, like so many other cops and private eyes in the genre, he breaks the rules. Often.

Sandford’s plots are intricate. Invariably, what might seem at first as a simple case will inevitably turn out to involve numerous crimes—and often a large number of criminals as well. Sometimes, there are several seemingly unrelated cases that come together as the investigation unfolds. (That’s the case in Bad Blood, when four separate murders all prove to be closely related.) Sandford does use manipulative techniques, such as disclosing the fact that Virgil has a plan of action but without explaining the plan in any way. But he uses such devices infrequently. For the most part, the logic of the case builds steadily throughout the novel and reaches an explosive climax shortly before the end.

The dialog sings

Sandford’s dialogue sings. Virgil’s conversations are usually fast-moving and often very, very funny as well. In these novels, the characters obviously don’t speak the way people normally speak. But the stories benefit from the illusion that they do. Sandford is undoubtedly a witty man. Here, for example, is Virgil: “‘Your eyes sparkle when you’re annoyed,'” he said, giving her his second-best cowboy grin. His first-best grin was so powerful that he reserved it for places where the woman had her back against something, for support; like a mattress.” (The sexism is Virgil’s, or Sandford’s. Apologies.)

There is violence. A lot of it. As a reader, I wish this weren’t the case. But clearly these novels wouldn’t work otherwise. (The same is true of the work of another bestselling American author, Karin Slaughter, and of the work of the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo.) In Bad Blood, the focus is on a religious cult child abuse and a long string of murders.

In the Virgil Flowers series, as in his other works of fiction, Sandford employs an intimate brand of third-person storytelling. We share Virgil’s thoughts and feelings consistently throughout the book. Sometimes, we enter the minds of other characters as well. This approach gives the author maximum flexibility.

If you enjoy mystery and suspense fiction, chances are you’ll love the Virgil Flowers novels.

Bad Blood (Virgil Flowers #4) by John Sandford (2011) 434 pages ★★★★★

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