Cover image of "Dark of the Moon," a novel involving 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.” As the Virgil Flowers series opens, he tangles with a right-wing preacher.

A starring role in his own spinoff series

In Dark of the Moon, John Sandford presents Virgil in a starring role in the first entry in his own series, a spinoff from his wildly popular “Prey” novels featuring Lucas Davenport. To date, there are twenty-seven of the latter and ten in the Virgil Flowers series. There’s no end in sight for either series.

As Virgil heads home in his truck, he spots a roaring fire on a hilltop along the way. Rushing to the scene, he encounters fire trucks, several sheriff’s deputies, and a crowd of onlookers. An enormous house atop the hill is in the process of being reduced to rubble as the firefighters stand aside, unable to do a thing about it. As Virgil knows—as everyone in the region knows—the house is the property of Bill Judd Sr., an aging multimillionaire hated by virtually everyone within driving distance. More than twenty years earlier, Judd had been the perpetrator of a Ponzi scheme that bankrupted many of his neighbors. Had someone finally gotten even? That was the conventional wisdom in the neighboring town of Bluestem. But this is not Virgil’s case.

Dark of the Moon (Virgil Flowers #1) by John Sandford ★★★★★

At first, it appears that the incident at the Judd house was simply a matter of arson. Perhaps the old man torched the place and has run off to Bora-Bora to enjoy the millions he stole. But it soon becomes clear to Virgil and the local investigators that Judd died a horrible death in the fire, a victim of murder. In fact, Sandford had already told us that the old man was viciously killed by someone named Moonie and that there are more murders to come.

Judd’s son, Bill Judd Jr., “a greedy, grasping, sociopathic businessman” like his father, is frantic for the case to be closed so he can inherit the estate. However, a young woman named Jesse Laymon steps forward claiming to be a natural daughter of Judd Sr. Clearly, this will slow things down, complicating Jr’s desperate grab for his father’s money. It now seems to be clear that money lies at the heart of this case. Or does it? Somehow, a drug-dealing right-wing preacher seems to have a connection to the case.

Not long afterward . . .

Not long afterward, as we expect, a brutal double murder takes place in Bluestem. The victims are a couple in their eighties, contemporaries of Bill Judd Sr. Sheriff Jim Stryker, a friend of Virgil’s, is at a standstill in his investigation in both cases, so he calls in the state’s equivalent of the FBI, the BCA in the person of Virgil Flowers, to help him with what appears to be the work of a ritual killer. Bluestem is in Virgil’s territory, and he’s soon on the scene. Virgil quickly begins to wonder whether the two cases are connected—all three victims were in their eighties. However, if there is a connection, it will take Virgil a lot of work to bring it out into the open.

Meanwhile, Virgil becomes involved romantically with Joanie Stryker, the sheriff’s beautiful younger sister. The sheriff himself begins developing a relationship with Jesse Laymon. It doesn’t take long for Virgil to realize that practically everyone he meets in Bluestem, including Judd Jr., Joanie, and Jesse, is a suspect in what has become clear to him is a triple homicide. Everyone seems to have a motive. Then two other murders come to light, pressure from the news media and Virgil’s boss begins to mount, and Virgil’s investigation ranges further afield to include that fanatical right-wing preacher who is suspected of drug-dealing, the local newspaper editor, and the sheriff himself. It will take every ounce of Virgil’s considerable intelligence and insight to untangle the mystery. He can only hope that in the process he won’t alienate everyone in town.

It’s easy to understand how John Sandford parlayed this gem of a mystery novel into his second popular series. The characters are believable, the dialogue sparkles, and the suspense builds to a tragic climax.

You’ll find reviews of all of the novels in this series at John Sandford’s excellent Virgil Flowers novels.

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