Bestselling crime novelist John Sandford originally developed Virgil Flowers as a character in his long-running Prey series starring Lucas Davenport (another fascinating and entirely original Sandford character). The 12 excellent Virgil Flowers novels are a spinoff from the longer series. Writing in the New York Times Book Review (Oct. 5, 2018), columnist Marilyn Stasio notes that “John Sandford’s madly entertaining Virgil Flowers mysteries are more fun than a greased-pig-wrestling contest. The plots are outlandish; the characters peculiar; and the best bits of dialogue are largely unprintable.” Amen to that.
This post was updated on May 4, 2021.
The 12 excellent Virgil Flowers novels
Dark of the Moon – In Virgil Flowers’ debut, arson, multiple murder, and a right-wing preacher
Virgil Flowers is a horndog who feels compelled to chase every pretty woman under the age of 50. Though his own faith rejects Jesus, he’s “the son of a Presbyterian minister and a professor of engineering, who saw in God the Great Engineer and believed as devoutly as her husband.” He’s been married and divorced three times, but “he didn’t want to be a four-time loser, so he stopped getting married.” He’s also a university graduate with a degree in environmental science, an outdoorsman, a published writer for hunting and fishing magazines, and an aspiring short story writer. And, oh by the way, he’s one of the top investigators in the fictional Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) known far and wide in the bureau as “that f***ing Flowers.” Read the review.
Virgil Flowers has the highest rate of closed cases of all the agents in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). But he’s no superhero. Virgil makes mistakes. He sometimes misreads suspects and jumps to conclusions. He misses clues. And it’s those mistakes that help propel the action forward at a fast clip in Heat Lightning. Read the review.
Rough Country – John Sandford’s best Virgil Flowers novel?
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, Virgil’s boss, Lucas 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. Read the review.
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 is a case in point. Read the review.
Virgil is sent to investigate a fatal bombing at the site of a future big-box store. As the novel’s first bombing is followed by a second and then, in quick succession, another, Virgil and the local sheriff race to identify the bomber–and, along the way, come to grips with the corruption on the city council that gave the green light for the store to be built. Read the review.
Lucas Davenport assigns Virgil to follow up on a brutal and seemingly senseless murder in a small rural town. One murder has turned into two by the time he arrives at the site of the first murder, and two more are quickly discovered. Soon it becomes clear that a couple of local young people, or maybe three of them, have gone on a killing spree. Read the review.
If you’re writing an ongoing series, how do you keep creating fresh new stories that readers will find engaging? Take Virgil Flowers, for example. Virgil is forced to carry out his investigations in a single American state. So, how can you work in Israeli agents, Turkish thugs, and an ancient artifact? Well, John Sandford found a way. You’ll see it all spelled out in this seventh in his series of excellent Virgil Flowers novels. Read the review.
Deadline – Funny crime fiction, and from John Sandford!
A case of dognapping becomes entangled with small-town school board corruption and the murder of an alcoholic investigative journalist. Flowers’ life is threatened, and so are his friends’. Naturally, it all comes out right in the end, but the tale is a twisted one, with lots of laughs along the way despite the utter seriousness of the crimes. Read the review.
Escape Clause – Virgil Flowers, two rare tigers, and exploited migrant workers
The Prey series now includes 27 novels, but you can count on one thing when reading any one of them: extreme violence. The protagonist, Lucas Davenport, is a very serious man. There’s not a lot of humor in his life. Virgil Flowers is different. Every one of the books in the Virgil Flowers series that I’ve read so far has featured witty dialogue, lots of good-natured leg-pulling, and even a few jokes–in the context of a suspenseful detective novel. It turns out that John Sandford can write humor as well as thrilling crime fiction. Read the review.
On the first page of the latest Virgil Flowers novel we learn that David Birkmann is a killer. “He’d gotten away with it, he thought.” Naturally, since we also know that Virgil will be called on to investigate the murder, we’re perfectly well aware that David most certainly will not get away with it. However, in Deep Freeze, the tenth novel in the saga of Virgil Flowers, we have to wait nearly 400 pages to understand exactly how the legendary detective solves the case. And along the way we’ll have a lot of fun with the subplot, which involves Barbie Dolls converted into sex toys. Read the review.
So, here’s Virgil Flowers again, called to another small Minnesota town to solve a mystery that has befuddled the local cops. This time it’s Wheatfield, home of the St. Mary’s Catholic Church where the Virgin Mary has miraculously appeared on several occasions. And that must be true, because many of the worshippers have captured her visitations with their cellphone cameras. But somebody has it in for those worshippers, because one of them has been shot in the leg with a rifle. This makes the town fathers exceedingly nervous, because if the perpetrator isn’t caught the pilgrims may stop coming to town and spending lots of money in the local store and Mom’s Cafe. Hence, the invitation to Virgil Flowers.
With a call from the governor, Virgil is yanked off a minor investigation in southern Minnesota and forced to rush to the Twin Cities. It seems that a wealthy and famous professor at the University has been murdered, and the Minneapolis Police don’t have a clue what happened. But soon Virgil and his co-investigator are swimming in suspects—enough to populate an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Which makes them, and everyone else involved, even more confused. And the situation grows even more fraught because . . . well, because so many of those people at the University are so frigging smart. They’ve all got alibis, of course, and the murderer’s motive could involve anything from the need to silence a witness in a lawsuit to taking out an academic rival. It’s one bloody mess.
For additional reading
John Sandford’s thirty-first “Prey” novel is billed as “A Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers Novel.” It’s really not, but Virgil does play a major supporting role: Ocean Prey (Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers take on drug smugglers).
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