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John Sandford’s “Mad River: A Virgil Flowers Novel”

Publisher:  The Penguin Group

Copyright:  2012

ISBN 978-0-399-15770-7 (Hardcover Edition)

307 pages (Hardcover); 26 Chapters


I.  Murder Book Summary:


Southwestern Minnesota hasn’t had to deal with this kind of problem since…well, since never.

A trio of angry, loser-type teenagers that I call “The Gang of Three,” is on a diabolical murder spree that’s leaving the entire region bewildered, and terrified

The first victim:  Agatha (Ag) O’Leary Murphy, the daughter of John and Marsha O’Leary.  She was Shot in the head while visiting her parent’s home, in a bungled home invasion.

The Second victim:  Emmett Williams, a young African-American car-jack victim.  He was shot dead by the leader of the escaping “gang of three”, Jimmy Sharp.

Sharp is a man who clearly seems to enjoy his work.  A square jawed, chain smoker, Sharp is an Army reject, who couldn’t hold a job if you paid him.  Literally!

Jimmy, who’s not exactly the smartest citizen of Shinder Minnesota, thinks of himself as a modern day Clyde Barrow.  Agatha is his first killing, but she won’t be is last.  Not by a long shot.

Murder gives him pleasure and makes him feel powerful and important.  For the first time in his short, failed, life, he is somebody.

This is a total turn-on for Jimmy’s teen girlfriend, Rebecca (Becky) Welsh.  In high school, Becky was considered the “prettiest and hottest girl” going.

Unfortunately good looks appear to be her only asset.  And worst, Becky doesn’t appear to be smart enough to exploit her physicality or develop any other latent talents.

From a poor background, and the product of non pretentious, frightened parents, her ambitions were never recognized or encouraged.

Becky became disappointed, disillusioned, and finally angry with life at a very early age.

Today, she is excited by Jimmy’s tough-guy persona.  She doesn’t understand Jimmy’s attitude for what it really is:  A cover up for impotence and hidden desires.  Together, Jimmy and Becky are Bonnie and Clyde on steroids.

The final member of Minnesota’s “gang of three” is Tom McCall, Jimmy’s loyal side kick.  Actually, loyalty isn’t even close to being a part of Tom’s true makeup.

Tom is a tall, rangy, whinny, complainer, who’s been kicked out of the Navy for medical reasons.  Like Jimmy, he can’t hold down a legitimate job.

He is completely self-centered, untrustworthy, and a liar.  Jimmy doesn’t trust Tom, and with good reason.  Tom is wildly attracted to Becky who’ll have nothing to do with him.

While the first two victims of this gang appear to be “wrong place/wrong time” quarry, the next three killings are highly personal in nature.

Jimmy shoots his own father in the head when the old man refuses to give him a place to hide out.  He then kills Becky’s parents for the same reason.  He seems to be completely enjoying himself.

Becky, who hates her folks with a passion, eggs him on, “and she felt nothing for them…” after the deed was done.

And so it continues.  These demented teens will kill anyone they feel can supply them with money and a fresh car to drive.

There’s the husband and wife who are franchise owners of a local fast food restaurant.  Then there is a Bare County deputy sheriff attempting to halt the gang’s robbery of a credit union.

There’s a woman whose home they burglarize for medicine.  The woman’s husband is also shot but he manages to survive.

And there’s the old man, living alone, who’s shot repeatedly when his killers decide his rural home would make the perfect hiding place.

The authorities have learned the identities of the gang, almost from the very beginning of the spree.  However, Jimmy and company have proven to be incredibly difficult to catch.

This is not because they are brilliant criminals.  Far from it!  It’s just blind luck that keeps the gang one step ahead of law enforcement.  Or, as Virgil Flowers would say:  “they’re kinda dumb.”

As an experienced field investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Virgil Flowers is assigned to this difficult case by his boss, Chief Investigator, Lucas Davenport.

Flowers finds himself partnered with Lewis Duke, Sheriff of Bare County.  The two men couldn’t be more different.

Flowers is idealistic, slow to anger, and even slower to shoot.  Duke is conservative, hot-tempered, and may bend rules to suit his perspective of things.  Virgil considers Duke “an asshole”

While chasing after these “kinda dumb” killers and remaining one step behind them, Virgil uncovers a very uncomfortable possibility.  It is just possible that the “Gang of Three” may have a hidden forth member.

Dick Murphy is the husband of the first victim, Agatha (Ag) O’Leary Murphy.  He is a self centered jerk, and is said to have been physically abusive to Ag and may even have raped her.

Ag wanted a divorce and that put a frown on Dickey’s face.  After all, since Ag has left no will, he’d be much better off financially if she would just…die!

Dick, “the dick” knew Jimmy Sharp, and was seen shooting pool with him.  All this begs the question:  Was the Ag O’Leary Murphy murder really the result of a botched robbery gone wrong?

II.  Murder Book Summary:

This is the first of John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers series that I’ve read; therefore I can’t compare it with the others.

I can say that it starts off quickly, from the very first chapter with the murder of Ag O’Leary Murphy.  With only 307 pages, it’s not a large book to get through, making it a quick read even for a slow-poke like myself.

Sandford’s “Prey” series with Lucas Davenport is more engrossing, I think.  But this is a good book.

It does leave you with two points to ponder:

  • Some people will never succeed, no matter how much they might want to…maybe there’s some kind of personality flaw.  Or, maybe outside circumstances prevent it.  The Gang of Three are classic examples of people with big dreams, but who lack the proper tools to implement.  This leads to a high level of frustration, followed by an irrational level of rage directed at others.
  • Some people can literally get away with murder.  Ideally, anyone who breaks the law sould pay the piper.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work out that way.  Or, as Lucas Davenport points out:  “…It’s Just Life.”

This post first appeared on Best Murder Books, please read the originial post: here

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John Sandford’s “Mad River: A Virgil Flowers Novel”


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