Night Prey

John Sandford on Night Prey

When I was young, and working at the Miami Herald as a reporter, I was a two-packs-a-day guy. When I had a serious story and a short deadline, I'd sometimes have two cigarettes going, propped in different ashtrays on either side of my IBM Selectric.
Cigarettes make the perfect break from writing: they're non-fattening, and they give you a little chemical jolt, along with a couple of seconds to think over the next phrase or paragraph.
I quit smoking a long time ago, pressed by my wife and kids. In the last ten or fifteen years, I've replaced it with the Internet; I keep the 'net running in the background, while I work on Word up front. When I need a short break, I click the mouse and look at a news feed.
The news feed just now — just now, just this minute, as I was writing this — says that Robert Parker, author of the Spenser series, has died. I'm a fan as well as an author, and I've read Spencer novels since I was in college, as did my wife. I remember her laughing about Parker's fascination with clothing, and the way Spenser dressed, in his early books. She accused me of stealing that for the Davenport books, when I made Lucas a clothes-horse.
Maybe I did.
I've read about all of Parker's books. I have a first edition of The Godwulf Manuscript, with his signature, which, back in the olden days, was about the size of a fingernail. I actually remember reading that book for the first time, fascinated by the idea of a somewhat noir detective who was also an intellectual. Used to be a boxer, had a bottle of booze in the drawer, but knew about English literature.
A revelation.
And I liked the writing. I mentioned to Parker's editor at Putnam's one time that while Parker occasionally forgot to put a plot in his books, he wrote so smoothly, and so engagingly, you'd slip right through the book without realizing it.
I think now, Well, hell. He's gone. He was 77. I never met him, but I'll miss him.

In most of his books, Parker was what I call a clockwork guy. That is, in a clockwork novel, there's a conspiracy underway, which has resulted in murder or kidnapping, or will result in it. (The crime has to be serious enough to engage the interest of the reader. You can't have Spenser investigating a minor embezzlement, unless it leads to something more serious.) In a clockwork, Spenser has to break into the logic of the crime, and that allows him to track down the miscreants.
There's another kind of plot that I call the chaos scheme. I'm more of a chaos guy, because they really represent my view of the world. I see crime as the product of misplaced greed, misbegotten love, of sex, of drugs and alcohol, accident and error, the inability to delay gratification, of television, and mostly, of blind stupidity, rather than careful, intelligent, insidious scheming.
That makes the crimes harder to break into, because there is no logic to them. It's the Big Lebowski or Fargo view of crime: vicious, terrible things being done for really stupid reasons — like minor thievery covered up with murder, or a gang-banger killing somebody because he saw it done on TV.
Night Prey, however, was a kind of hybrid — a clockwork novel, in which a series of carefully plotted clues point at the existence of a killer, but the killer operates with the chaotic mind of an insane man. The killings have a gross pattern, but no there's no logic behind them.
Night Prey also was the first book in which I played a bit with the problems of criminal law, the fact that cops have to do more than figure out who a killer is — they actually have to find proof, and proof that will hold up in court.
What do you do if you're intellectually and morally convinced that a suspect is a killer, who might kill again, at random, at any moment... and you can take him off the street on burglary? And if you do that, he'll know that you've been tracking him, that you're onto him for the murders? And that then, you'll never get him for the murders?
Tough choices.

When I went back and re-read Night Prey so I could write this new introduction, I was reminded how I struggled with the character of the female investigator Meagan Connell. Her plight — read the novel to discover what it is — didn't come up until I was almost through with the original draft, and then I had to go back and rearrange everything about her personality, to make it work.
I like the way she works as a character in this version. But in re-reading, so many other possibilities for her pop up; other things that could have been done, instead of what I did. I don't know if they would have worked any better, as story-telling, but it does make me think about the millions of different possible turns that any novel can take, and how much infinitely more there is to write.
Makes me wonder how many more books Robert Parker had him, how many more twists and surprising conclusions lie waiting down all our roads.
Still sitting here feeling sad about it.

— John Sandford, January 19, 2010