The twenty-fifth book in John Sandford's Prey series opens when his adopted daughter, Letty, befriends a pair of Travelers while at college in California. The two are a couple and, like other Travelers, they move from place to place, most often camping out and living as cheaply as possible, sometimes panhandling to make ends meet. The two tell Letty that they are planning to be in Minnesota later in the summer en route to a series of festivals. After treating them to lunch, Letty gives them her phone number and tell them to call if they go through the Twin Cities.
Later, the two Travelers fall in with bad company, a group somewhat resembling the Manson family and led by a charismatic figure named Pilate. Sometime later, the female Traveler, Skye, calls Letty in a panic, afraid that Pilate and his gang have murdered her boyfriend. Letty arranges a bus ticket for Skye and convinces her father, Lucas Davenport of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, to meet the bus with her.
Davenport is initially skeptical, but as Skye tells the story, he comes to believe that there might be something to it. At Letty's urging, he begins to investigate and soon he will be wandering all over the Upper Midwest in pursuit of Pilate and his obnoxious associates.
I'm a huge fan of this series, but this book did not work for me nearly as well as most of the others have. In the first place, the first portion of the book is largely a Letty Davenport novel, rather than a Lucas Davenport novel. No offense to the kid; she's been a great minor character in novels up to this point, but she's not nearly as compelling a protagonist as her father, and no one buys the Prey series to follow her adventures.
Also, the story takes Davenport pretty far afield from his usual haunts into the rural areas of the Upper Midwest. One of the BCA bureaucrats up the chain of command wonders why Lucas is racing all over the place attempting to solve crimes in other states rather than tending to business at home. Lucas gets angry with the guy, but he raises a legitimate point. The reader also wonders what in the hell Lucas is doing, other than simply trying to do his daughter a big favor.
The story also suffers a bit because the villains in this story are not nearly up to Sandford's usual standards. These books rise and fall to a considerable extent based upon the antagonists that Lucas has to track down. Sandford has created some great ones in the past, but Pilate and his confederates don't seem nearly that interesting and, frankly, don't seem worthy of having someone the caliber of Lucas Davenport hard on their trail.
If that's not bad enough, this is one of those stories in which a couple of the characters routinely do REALLY STUPID THINGS, in spite of being warned not to. These are things that no sensible person would do and which advance the story but which also cause the reader to shake his or her head and lose patience both with the characters and with the story.
Additionally, Davenport is basically out there on his own, without his usual compatriots. And, partly as a consequence, this book is not nearly as funny as most of the others in the series. Sanford has a very rare gift in that he can drop hilariously funny scenes into a story that is otherwise dark and disturbing, and somehow it works--it doesn't seem inappropriate or out of place as it does when many other authors attempt it. This story has a few such moments, but not nearly as many as usual. This book needs the presence of people like Del, Shake and Jenkins who are absent from the scene. That F***ing Virgil Flowers makes a cameo appearance and when he does, the book really comes alive for a couple of chapters; otherwise it seems awfully flat for a Lucas Davenport book.
I really don't want to think that this series might be running out of gas, and I hope that this is just a slight bump along the way. There have been signs for a while that Sandford might be thinking about taking the character in another direction, and if Lucas has come to that proverbial fork in the road, then it's probably time for him to take it. I'm not really worried yet; my intuition tells me that Lucas will be back up to speed by the time the next novel rolls around, butGathering Prey will never rank among my favorite books in what is, overall, one of my favorite series of all time.