The character of Virgil Flowers, a Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent under the supervision of Lucas Davenport, gives the prolific Sandford an opportunity to recreate the energy, law enforcement skills and take-no-prisoners personality that made Davenport, of the wildly successful Prey series, into a mystery fan favorite. Like Davenport in the early days, Virgil Flowers is rugged, unconventional and tough enough to stand up to local law enforcement and media demands. Mad River offers a broad canvas for a swath of spree murders that begins with an attempted robbery but becomes a homicide.
Three teenagers—Jimmy Sharp, Becky Welsh and Tom McCall—are on a rampage that will lead agencies across Minnesota in an increasingly frustrating and deadly search, the public outraged at each new death. Becky and Jimmy are ill-starred lovers. Tom McCall trails the impulsive Jimmy like a reluctant shadow, watching Jimmy’s excitement increases with each new kill, Becky his enthusiastic audience. After the first murder, the daughter of a popular family undergoing a divorce and staying with her folks, the second one is opportunistic—a man going to his vehicle when Jimmy’s getaway car fails to start. From then on, killing is a high, a thrill to be pursued again and again.
Soon after the robbery/homicide, Becky’s parents are found murdered in their home, the hijacked vehicle in their garage. An ugly picture is taking shape as Flowers, recruited by Davenport, cooperates with legendary hard-line Sheriff Lewis Duke of Bare County, a man who expects things to be done his way. Virgil can handle the attitudes of locals up to a point, but it is essentially his investigation. As the action moves into high gear and law enforcement always lags one step behind the killers, Virgil gets more creative, soliciting advice from unusual sources, desperate enough to be open-minded about his resources.
As the killings escalate and the Bare County deputies take the murders very personally, Virgil’s biggest challenge is maintaining a successful pursuit while keeping the focus on the desired result: bringing the killers in safely. Clearly there’s a strong temptation, even the public will, to erase these three fools from the face of the earth. Flowers doesn’t have that luxury, working on a murder-for-hire scenario that requires Jimmy Sharp alive as a primary witness: “Virgil had a feeling that... people would be bleeding into the dirt before the sun went down.” Once the search pins the young criminals to a particular area, the nature of that final confrontation becomes critical. Sandford’s skills shine in such situations, his juxtaposition of characters and events in a teeth-grinding confluence of killers and authorities. Unfortunately, for Virgil’s peace of mind, Sheriff Duke is keeping his communications with his men private, while Virgil plans for any contingency as best he can.
From the first page and the cold-blooded murder of a young woman to the death of innocent farmers in the wrong place at the wrong time, Sandford explores the mentality of young killers high on the rush of death, learning “the power of the gun.” Conscience is not an issue, irrelevant to their manner of moving through the world. As they carefully examine one scene of carnage after another, law enforcement attempts to anticipate the teens’ next move, reporters and TV crews following each phase in a media circus. Sandford hasn’t lost his touch in Mad River, only added interest to his repertoire. His name aside, Virgil Flowers could be Lucas Davenport reincarnated: virile, competent, irresistible to the ladies, and a reliable arbiter of justice when feelings run high and vigilante fever is most appealing. With the plot fresh and the action full throttle, fans needn't worry that there will be any shortage of Sandford thrillers to entertain loyal readers in the foreseeable future.