Hunting 'Prey' On The Streets Of St. Paul, Minn.

Before becoming a best-selling crime novelist, John Sandford was a reporter at the Pioneer Press. He is the author of more than two dozen crime novels, including the Prey series, featuring fictional detective Lucas Davenport. (This piece initially aired July 31, 2009 on Morning Edition.)

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Flip through the crime section at a bookstore or library and you're likely to spot a tendency among the novelists. Several of them began their careers as reporters. Think Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, and John Camp. Camp won a Pulitzer Prize with the St. Paul Pioneer Press back in 1986. These days he's better known by his penname, John Sandford - the author of a best-selling crime series featuring tough guy cop Lucas Davenport.

In today's encore of our series Crime in the City, we're in the Twin Cities. That's where NPR's Lynn Neary spent time with John Sandford a few years ago.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: John Sandford is a genial man. Tall and lanky, he's the kind of person who seems at ease in the world. And for many years, his world has been centered mostly in Minnesota's Twin Cities, Minneapolis/St. Paul. It's a city with two distinct downtowns and that, says Sandford, gives Lucas Davenport a pretty good playing field for chasing bad guys.

JOHN SANDFORD: The downtown areas and the neighborhoods that are between them are actually quite compact. So we're going through a very nice neighborhood right now, but we're about three or four blocks from where Davenport gets in a lot of trouble. As a matter of fact, I'll take a left up here and I'll just take you through it.

NEARY: But even this neighborhood in St. Paul doesn't look too threatening. It has an old fashioned American look, like an Edward Hopper painting. Sandford populates these streets with some pretty tough thugs, like the red-haired paraplegic pimp Randy Whitcomb in his latest book, "Wicked Prey."

And Sandford unleashes a lot of mayhem in these streets. Still, when Davenport's work is over and he's captured his prey, often in a blaze of gunfire, he retires to the arms of his wife Weather and their children in a posh neighborhood overlooking the Mississippi River.

SANDFORD: And you can see what it looks like here. It's all nice and leafy and green and it's got a quiet street that runs along the river and the houses are very nice. And...

NEARY: And it's not really the kind of place that you would imagine that kind of tough guy cop to live, I don't think.

SANDFORD: No, but he has this domestic element in him. And not only does he have a domestic element, I mean, he's quite aware of fashion. When you're building a character, or at least when I'm building a character, you start saying, how am I going to make people like him?

Well, one of the things, one of Davenport's idiosyncrasies is that he's a clothes horse. He likes to dress up and he's sort of the same way in the neighborhood. He likes to live in a place that is very comfortable and feels good to him.

NEARY: Like the man who created him, Lucas Davenport is comfortable in his own skin. He is not, says Sandford, a noir kind of guy.

SANDFORD: A lot of cops in fiction are very depressive and are kind of downbeat, and they've got all kinds of existential angst that they're dealing with. Davenport doesn't do that. He likes the job. He likes to hunt people. He likes confrontations. He will get tough with people even when they really don't deserve it in a lot of ways, because he likes that kind of thing. And this is actually based on cops that I've known.

NEARY: Sandford learned a lot about cops when he worked as a reporter at the Pioneer Press. He spent time hanging out with them and listening to how they talk, like this kind of banter between Tina Kill(ph) and Lane Laudnam(ph), officers at the St. Paul's police department's crime lab.

TINA KILL: Can I turn this ax-pick type instrument for nonexistent fingerprints?

LANE LAUDNAM: Yes, ma'am. What's today the 29th?

KILL: Oh, no, I mean if anybody can get fingerprint, Lane, you can.

LAUDNAM: Oh, right.

NEARY: Sandford's well-known to many of the cops at the St. Paul Police Department. One of his long-time friends is Police Chief John Harrington.

JOHN HARRINGTON: You're looking well. How are you?

KILL: How's it going?

HARRINGTON: Not too bad. Yourself?

NEARY: Sandford met Harrington at a karate class. They have been friends since the days when the future chief worked undercover on the city's buses. Sandford says he doesn't ask Harrington for advice about his books, but over the years, he's learned a lot just by watching him, and Harrington says, Sandford gets the details of police work right.

HARRINGTON: Yeah, he gets them better than anybody else I've ever read. So, he's...

SANDFORD: You know, the thing is that there really is a Hollywood aspect to it, because you can't do the bureaucratic part of the police work, because it slows the story down. It's like...

HARRINGTON: Well, Lucas never writes reports. So, you know, I get that and there's never - you know, not much evidence turned in. So we recognize that it's a fictionalized version of what do, but it's not what Lucas does, it's the tone. It's the communication of how cops talk to each other, how cops think about each other, and how we think about the world that he gets just right on.

NEARY: Sandford looks for those telling details wherever he may be, whether it's prowling the city streets or on a hunting trip with his buddies.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING ON DOOR)

SANDFORD: Hey, Logan.

CHUCK LOGAN: Hey, come on in.

SANDFORD: How are you, man?

NEARY: Chuck Logan is a writer who is also one of Sandford's deer hunting pals. He lives in a small bedroom community not far from the Twin Cities. Sandford and Logan like to talk about writing, even when they're hunting. Logan remembers one time when Sandford gave him some advice that helped get his career going.

LOGAN: I mean, some miserable November, I was sitting in a deer stand looking at a dozen rejection notices, you know, and at some point I talked to John. He says, well, back off this ponderous literary stuff, you know, and write a thriller.

NEARY: And like everything else in Sandford's life, hunting is another source of material for his writing. He remembers one time when Logan shot a deer and the two of them followed the wounded animal's trail of blood.

SANDFORD: I mean, all of the sudden you've got this whole thing that you know about tracking a blood wound through the woods, and that just showed up in a novel I wrote a couple of years ago about my other character, Virgil Flowers, where they're actually tracking a blood trail from a guy who gets shot in the woods. And so I've got a reference back to what it really looks like.

NEARY: Back in the car, Sandford talks about his approach to writing. It's easy, he says for a writer to get isolated. That's why it's important to him that he stay connected with the people and the places he cares about.

SANDFORD: Most people who are trying to write kind of sit in their basements and they kind of pull it out of their imagination. It would be so much better if they'd just go and look. And it doesn't even have to be in the same neighborhood you're talking about. It just has to be credible for that neighborhood. But just go outside and look at something and then write down and you'll find out that it's a very nice piece of writing.

NEARY: Fiction, this one time journalist firmly believes, works best when it's grounded in reality. Perhaps that's why the roots he planted in the Twin Cities more than 30 years ago remain so strong. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: Our series continues Monday with author Robert Crais. Like all of our crime writers, he has an especially strong attachment to his city which happens to be Los Angeles.

ROBERT CRAIS: There's the Hollywood sign. There's Griffith Observatory. There's the great amazing Los Angeles basin. It's 465 square miles of insanity and the best food on the planet. So why leave?

MONTAGNE: Robert Crais and the city that launched his beloved hero Elvis Cole next time on Crime on the City. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renée Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

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