Virgil Flowers, agent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension under Lucas Davenport, returns in another adventure, this one with international implications. It all begins on a kibbutz in Israel, where an accomplished digger, the Reverend Elijah Jones, takes advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to steal a precious artifact discovered on a dig. Carefully planning both theft and escape, Jones makes off with an inscribed stele, of inestimable value anthropologically, historically and religiously. He returns home to his native Mankato, Minnesota, to engage in a sale to the highest bidder.
The various interested parties contacted, the buyers converge on Mankato, each determined to purchase the stele. Meanwhile, Virgil Flowers is engaged in his usual work-related activities, this time a counterfeit lumber ring, headed by the fetching and bodacious “Ma” Nobles and her sons. On the cusp of either arresting Ma or bedding her, Virgil is torn in a most pleasant manner, willing to convince Ma of the perils of crime and engage in some extracurricular activity, if the situation warrants it: “Sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” Unfortunately, Davenport’s request to meet a member of the Israel Antiquities Authority derails Virgil’s immediate plans.
The rendezvous at the airport with the representative of the IAA, Yael Aronov, is only the beginning of a cat-and-mouse chase with Rev. Jones and his intended auction with the chosen buyers. No sooner has Virgil delivered Yael to her hotel than he is bombarded with a list of diverse characters newly visiting Mankato, as well as the impossibility of locating the elusive reverend. Dying of terminal cancer, Jones has his reasons for the outrageous theft and little to lose as he nears the end. His daughter, Ellen, is a natural suspect as Virgil tries in vain to pin the dying man down and take possession of the artifact. Unfortunately, more than one interested party interferes with Virgil’s attempts, some merely greedy for fame, others with more malicious intentions.
The complications are varied and numerous, the cast of characters as colorful as they are diverse: a renegade Mossad agent posing as Yael Aronov; Tag Bauer, a still-handsome television journalist desperate for a hot story to keep his show from being cancelled; a Texan bankrolled by big money who wants to document the artifact; a brutal killer known as “The Turk”; agents of Hezbollah; assorted thugs; and a young Lebanese Arab, Faraj Awad, who dreams of buying his own plane and becoming a pilot. Not to be left out, Ma Nobles inserts herself handily into the unfolding mayhem, becoming a major player and further confusing a tangled web of foreign interests, criminal opportunists and bottom-feeders hoping to make a profit from an invaluable artifact.
Between car chases, showdowns and occasional confrontations with Jones—who is captured only to be aided in escaping—Virgil relies on Davenport to supply the information that fuels his investigation. The resolution attracts international attention and considerable heat from law enforcement agencies all the way to Washington, DC. After a series of near-misses, violent encounters and a showdown for possession of the stele with Jones and his buyers, Virgil manages to bring the case to a close with little physical damage to those involved, but enough close calls to keep the pages turning.
Unlike the “Prey” novels on which Sandford has built his immense popularity, Virgil Flowers—although similar to Lucas Davenport in his penchant for occasional rule breaking—moves a lot slower and with an air of insouciance that gives him his folksy charm. (Perhaps Virgil is Davenport’s reincarnation for a younger demographic.) But where Lucas is the consummate professional, Virgil is the ladies’ man and lover of leisure, a sportsman with a laid-back approach to life that hides his zeal for law enforcement, except when it comes to Ma Nobles, the subject of many asides and good-natured jokes. Too many. In fact, the obsession with Ma’s luscious body lends a sophomoric bent that is both gratuitous and ridiculous. Either Flowers is strictly a man’s man or Sandford is having a midlife crisis. In either case, the edge I associate with this author’s work has lost a few of its teeth.