Mastering the Thriller Craft
By Dawn Ius
In the opening scene of John Sandford’s new thriller NEON PREY, Deese—a thin, ropy-muscled “aggressive orangutan” of a man—lightly brushes extra virgin olive oil on two thin steaks and barbecues them over peach coals. For him, cooking is a form of meditation, a distraction from his job as a contract killer—and not surprisingly, this book’s formidable villain.
What may come as a surprise for some, though, is that Deese isn’t your average assassin—and those steaks weren’t carved from any old domestic farm animal. Deese is a cannibal, as impressive and terrifying as another literary people-eater that Sandford acknowledges he thought about before writing NEON PREY.
That cannibal is, of course, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, and while the two literary villains share a somewhat disturbing culinary affliction, they couldn’t be more different.
“I’d never had a cannibal as a villain, and villains are, of course, the key to thriller novels. Thinking about Hannibal, though, I decided to go in an entirely different direction,” Sandford says. “Hannibal was flatly nuts: he ate people because he liked to eat people and would eat a human in preference to, say, a nice 16-ounce Kansas beefsteak.”
Not so with Deese. He eats parts of people because he’s a serious barbecue cook—connoisseurs take note of a drool-worthy recipe on Page 1—and he happens to have the meat on hand. (Pun intended.)
“In other words, you could say he was simply practical, rather than out-and-out drooling crazy,” Sandford says. “Of course, he was that, too, but that wasn’t what drove his cannibalism.”
It is, however, what puts US Marshal—and recurring Prey series character—Lucas Davenport on his trail.
Fans of Sandford’s work, and in particular the Prey books, will recall that it’s only been a few years since Davenport transitioned into his new career as a Marshal, a move the author concedes allows him to inject some fresh geography into the series.
“The biggest thing, of course, is that I can get him out of Minnesota,” he says. “I don’t know if that’s a net advantage as far as my readers are concerned, but it will be for me, since I’ll be taking research trips to interesting places. I’ve been in every part of Minnesota, often more than once, during the earlier Minnesota-based thrillers, and it felt like it was time to branch out.”
In NEON PREY, that means heading to the city of sin, Las Vegas, a locale Sandford says he was drawn to for its carnivalesque setting—open alcohol on the sidewalks, AC/DC music blaring on the streets, half-naked people wandering around in search of attention. It’s a bit of a free-for-all.
“I neither gamble nor drink (okay, I put $20 down the slots, but that’s not gambling, that’s just throwing your money down a hole), so it’s not that,” he says. “[But] Hell’s Bells on a viola? Wonderful. Half-million dollar cars rolling along the Strip like hay wagons…I mean, what’s not to like? I also bought a nice pair of brown shoes, so there’s that.”
Shopping aside, Sandford approaches each trip differently from that of the average tourist, in this instance, noting the things that have become so much part of the Vegas atmosphere, to an untrained—or perhaps to anyone but an author’s eye—they blend in, rather than stand out.
In Vegas, Sandford paid special attention to the bounty of security, both personal and private, and guns. Lots of guns. He also noticed large groups of middle-aged women—“college reunions? I don’t know”—wandering the streets in search of…well, Sandford isn’t really sure of that either.
And of course, there’s “every old 1960s crooner, still out there belting away in their ’80s, toilet paper tubes stuck down the front of their overly tight elderly pants.”
“One thing that did catch my interest were the large drainage tunnels under the Strip, which have become home to desperately poor and often deranged street people,” he says. “The tunnels do figure in the book…I did take a long look at those.”
These kinds of observations that then become details in his novels are what lend authenticity to the page-turning suspense inherent in Sandford’s work. They’re also the kind of skills gleaned first as a journalist—Sandford, under his real name, John Roswell Camp, won both the Distinguished Writing Award of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1985, and in 1986, a coveted Pulitzer—and then as a multi bestselling author of more than 50 books and short stories.
His books have all—in some format or another—landed on the New York Times bestseller list, have been translated into multiple languages, including Korean and Japanese, and a couple of his novels have been made into movies.
But Sandford says being named ThrillerMaster for the 2019 International Thriller Writers’ annual ThrillerFest conference ranks right up there with winning a Pulitzer.
“I got some nice recognition as a journalist over the years and then made the transition into writing fiction, which is a considerably more isolated profession,” he says. “It’s great to think that people are still noticing your existence and even better when they give you a pat on the back and say you’re doing okay. ThrillerMaster is one of the larger pats on the back for guys like me.”
Just reward, perhaps, for more than a decade of hard work pumping out two novels a year—one for each the Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers series. In 2020, Sandford plans to combine those characters for one book, a decision that admittedly will either thrill his readers, or piss them off.
“I value my readers, I really do, and not only that, I identify with them—I’m a thriller fan. I read almost everybody in the biz, at least once,” he says. “I take recommendations from readers and follow through on them. That said, I can’t worry too much what my readers’ response will be, because I’m pretty sure it’ll be better than if I dropped dead from overwork and didn’t write *any* books.”
We think so too.
Want to get up and close and personal with Sandford? There’s still time to register for ThrillerFest.
Photo credit (home & cover): Beowulf Sheehan