Although Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series is written with an extra helping of humor on the side, the issues are still as deadly and far-reaching. While Lucas Davenport, Virgil’s mentor in Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, is busy finishing up one of the most heinous serial murder cases to hit the state, Flowers is called from his home in Mankato to Trippton. There his friend Johnson Johnson (don’t ask!) relates a tale of stolen dogs, hunting hounds and family pets alike snatched by a ring of dognappers who plan to sell them to laboratories for research. While Virgil is looking into the situation—and trying to keep the disgruntled dog owners from forming a vigilante committee to search on their own—local reporter Clancy Conley is found murdered in a ditch by his single-wide rented trailer, three shotgun holes in his back.
Now Virgil faces trouble on two fronts, both serious enough to justify staying around Trippton longer to investigate the murder and devote any extra hours to traveling the back roads of local Orly Creek, where he suspects the dogs have been hidden before transport. And that’s before Virgil and Johnson trip over an illegal meth lab hidden in the wilderness, a situation that will require DEA investigation and postpone the hunt for the dognapping operation. Mixing together a colorful cast of dog-owners, locals and miscreants, Flowers has his hands full navigating the various issues and the excitable men who prefer to settle differences with their guns first and talk later.
More serious is the murder of Clancy Conley. Although Conley’s boss—Viking “Vikie” Laughton, the editor and owner of local newspaper the Trippton Republican-River—informs Flowers that the journalist was a drug addict who frequently disappeared for days at a time, other sources convince the agent to look further into Conley’s life, suspecting the man may have been about to crack a big story that would have blown the roof off a sleepy little town hiding a big crime. Bits of evidence point to the truth of Virgil’s suspicions, reinforced by the fact that Clancy’s computer is missing from his single-wide with no evidence of drug use in his body.
Following his instincts, Flowers comes at the murder case obliquely. His interest centers on the local school board, based on information gleaned from a few folks disgruntled with the high-handed ways of the board over the last few years. Getting a fix on the case becomes more difficult when another man is shot and killed in the same manner, only this victim is one of the suspects Virgil has been monitoring in relation to the dognapping case. As evidence falls into place in a constantly shifting series of incidents, Flowers has to sort through fact and supposition on the trail of a complex scheme begun in stealth but brought into the open with a cold-blooded murder.
While the novel teems with country folk and their idiosyncrasies, there is no shortage of the usual greed, larceny or conspiracy, a mélange of killers, conspirators, drug runners and dognappers revealing the dark underbelly of a bucolic setting in small-town America. Virgil is in the middle of the gunplay, chaos and mayhem to the very end, wading through killers, animal activists, druggies and vigilantes, wrangling some of his wildest cases yet.