Articles

Hit woman prowls St. Louis in Pulitzer winner's latest thriller
by John M. McGuire
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
June 12, 2002

This guy's been around, and the content of his mystery novels shows it. Moreover, this Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and old newspaper reporter loves St. Louis, which is the backdrop for much of his latest blast-away thriller, Mortal Prey. It features a beautiful contract killer named Clara Rinker; she's a Missourian [1], although purely fictional.
Last summer, author John Sandford spent two days touring St. Louis doing some homework for this latest mystery novel, guided by local celebrity escort Elaine Bly.
"First, he wanted to tour a warehouse district and other places that I normally wouldn't have in mind," said Bly, who watched as Sandford talked into his little tape recorder, or scribbled away taking notes.
He also had a video camera, filming St. Louis sites such as Benton Park and Soulard [2].
"He loved the name Pestalozzi. 'I'm going to use that in the book,' he said. So it was really interesting to tour your city and know that some of these scenes are going to be in a novel," Bly said.
It's not that Sandford, 58, isn't familiar with Missouri and the St. Louis region. He lives in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. But more than 30 years ago, he worked out of Perryville, Mo. [3], for the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian, the beginning of his long, wandering days as a reporter.
"I turned into their outside guy," he said by telephone from his house east of St. Paul. "I covered things in the Ozarks and the race riots in Cairo, Ill."
When Mortal Prey was released this spring, Sandford was really looking forward to returning to St. Louis in late May for a book signing. But a family crisis prevented that.
"I couldn't because of Susan's (breast) cancer," he said, referring to his wife.
"Her first day of chemo treatment fell on the day I was to be in St. Louis, May 24th. The thing is, she doesn't appear to be sick, you can't see it. But if they hadn't found it she would have found herself gone in a year. So now I'm a convert, urging all women that they'd better get mammograms. So I'm sort of stuck. I haven't been thinking about the book or anything else because of what's going on here with Susan."
Nevertheless, Sandford says he loves St. Louis, and that certainly comes across in Mortal Prey. In fact, he finds St. Louis very much like Minneapolis-St. Paul, "although St. Louis is a little older and a lot warmer. But the cities are a lot alike."
He says that "back in the 1960s, when newspapers were hot, I was desperate to work at the Post-Dispatch."
That never happened, but his newspaper career did lead him to writing books and now mysteries.
"The first books I wrote segued out of really long stories and features I'd written for newspapers, including a book on plastic surgery," Sandford said.
In 1985 and '86, he did a five-part series on the farm crisis in southwestern Minnesota called "Life on the Land: An American Farm Family." It won a Pulitzer.
The writer's real name is John Camp. Sandford, his pseudonym, is his maternal grandmother's maiden name [4] and a name he had to use when he changed publishers. When he sold his first novel, The Fool's Run, he used his real name. But his second book, Rules of Prey, was published by Putnam, and they wanted him to use a different name, so Sandford it is.
John Camp was raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and majored in history at the University of Iowa. He went into the Army in the 1960s during the Vietnam War era and, when he returned home after being stationed in Korea, Perryville was his first stop. Then, in 1970, he was off to the Miami Herald, where the famous reporter and author Carl Hiaasen worked for him. He also worked with the well-known crime writer Edna Buchanan.
He left Miami in 1979 [5] and returned north to the St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch. John Camp became a well-known columnist. His son Roswell, who was born in Perryville and has written about his father [6], said that Lake Wobegon radio entertainer Garrison Keillor once said that John Camp was the only good thing about the Pioneer Press [7].
But in 1991, Camp said goodbye to the newspaper business. He admits to being burned out.
"Newspaper people get worn down by the same things that gets to cops: the depressing things you see and hear," he said. "And cops have the same range of personalities that newspaper reporters have."
So his Mortal Prey focuses a lot on police work, the local cops versus the FBI, an organization that author Sandford says is "so bureaucratically bound up." His main character, Lucas Davenport, a Minneapolis officer, catches on with some retired St. Louis officers who help him pursue the wily and fascinating Clara Rinker.
Sandford's biggest disappointment was that the real St. Louis Police Department offered him no help in his efforts to find out about police procedures here.
"The city department was almost opaque," he said. So he had to rely on Minneapolis officers.
"I had access to Minneapolis cops and transferred the Minneapolis cops' attitudes and viewpoints to St. Louis," Sandford said.
"But everybody else in St. Louis was really nice."



Footnotes

1. This is actually correct. Clara lived in Kansas in Certain Prey, and she had her bar there, but she was born in Missouri and spent most of her life there. As it happens, I was also born in Missouri, but I haven't spent most of my life there, or even a large portion.

2. And when he got back, I took the tape from the camera and made a DVD from it. So in theory, he doesn't even need any fancy playback equipment or hookups or anything. He could just put the disc into a standard DVD player (or even a DVD-enabled computer) and watch it. Mind you, the video has enough subtle shaking and stuff to make me motion sick, but hey, it's still a wonder of technology. Yeah.

3. That's the city where I was born. During a trip to Florida last February, I stopped by for the first time since... well, I don't have any memories of living there, since I wasn't quite a year old when we moved. But I found the old house, thanks to my mom's descriptions. Not that that's relevant to the book, but... whatever.

4. I'm pretty sure it's actually his paternal grandmother's maiden name. Either that, or weird coincidences abound. I'll have to check on that.

5. Actually, he left in 1978. The rest of us left in 1979, to follow him up there, but he'd already been working at the Pioneer Press for a little while. He also lived alone, in an apartment in St. Paul that ended up being the model for Kidd's apartment.

6. And here's the part of the article where it actually says that I was born in Perryville. Proof, if any was actually needed, that I should read the article completely before making footnotes, rather than just making them as I go. Ehh, whatever. I like my way better. It's more "real".

7. Although when I'm pressed for information on this, I don't know where I heard it. It was a long time ago. That's all I remember.