A classic Sandford thriller. Three young “losers” in a tiny Minnesota rural backwater town go on a crime spree triggered by the offer of money for a contract killing, but quickly spiral out of control as they begin to kill randomly. Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator Virgil Flowers, who comes from the same general area, is called upon to hunt them down. Unfortunately, he has to work with an unstable sheriff –known unofficially as the Duke of Hazard–who has a history of vigilante-style behavior, including setting up concentration camps to hold minor criminals, and Virgil is convinced that the three kids are going to be executed by the sheriff’s men if he doesn’t get to them first.
Jimmy comes from an abusive family and with no skills, no education, no money and no future in sight, he has given himself over to his own dark instincts while trying not to acknowledge his own homosexuality. Becky is a pretty sociopath in love with Jimmy, and apparently prepared to follow him into hell, while slow-witted and frustrated Tom is in love with Becky, and prepared to follow her there as well. As the murders escalate, law enforcement efforts escalate as well and the trio starts to fall apart under the pressure. Virgil outmaneuvers the sheriff’s deputies time and again, but time is running out and the kids are still out there, eluding capture and adding to their tally of murders.
As usual for Sandford, the pace of the action is non-stop and the tension will keep you on the edge of your seat. The characters are well-delineated and not cardboard figures, and the subplots—in this case, the story of the fascinating O’Leary family—well done. Virgil himself is an enigma, as always. A loner who can’t make a relationship stick, but with a strong sense of justice and a philosophical mind that contemplates, for example, God’s purpose in creating people like Jimmy, Becky and Tom.
One caveat: Sandford’s writing is occasionally too steeped in popular culture, at least for my taste. In Mad River, he manages to waste too many pages discussing Virgil’s love for his newly-acquired boat or the pros and cons of country music singers, which adds absolutely zero to the story except perhaps to show the more banal side of our hero. If Sandford could trim such unfortunate indulgences from his writing, he would produce leaner, meaner stories that don’t threaten to derail the reader before they even get started.