Mind Prey

John Sandford on Mind Prey

John Mail, the villain in Mind Prey, is a bad, bad man. Comprehensively, thoroughly, insanely bad. A nightmare.

While none of my characters or stories are based directly on real-life criminals or crimes, Mind Prey was written with an actual crime at the back of my head. And guess what — the real criminal was worse than John Mail.
As a Twin Cities newspaper reporter at the time of the real crime, I helped with some of the coverage, and was friends with the guys who did the bulk of it, including the eventual trial of the kidnapper/murderer. The investigation and trial gave me a good look at the mind of an intelligent, yet seriously deranged sex criminal, and eventually came to influence a number of books in the Prey series.
The investigation also gave me an insight into the problems of investigation — for example, until the truth finally came out, the police were focused on the wrong man in the crime, a man who was completely innocent, but had no way to prove it. His tribulations would make a long book in itself.
And I saw some other human behavior that I came to use in various books. For another example, when the truth came out, there was no question that the accused was guilty. The physical evidence, including video tapes, was overwhelming, and direct, and was backed up by testimony of the victims themselves. (That they were alive was something of a miracle.)
That much made it into the media immediately, for this was a sensational crime. When the story broke, I was sent to the bad guy's business address — he was a small business owner — hoping to talk to employees, but they wouldn't speak to me.
For one thing, they didn't want to be associated with the killer.
For another, they'd seen the TV reports, and given the nature of his crimes and the overwhelming evidence, they knew the killer was never coming back. Never. And thus, they were far too busy looting the business to talk to a reporter.
The way of the world, I guess.

Sometime after I finished Mind Prey, I was invited to give a talk about crime-fiction writing at a medical examiners' convention. As part of the deal, I got to sit in on the convention, which I did for a while. I left after an FBI presentation on serial killers because, quite frankly, my stomach wasn't strong enough to look at the pictures.
I covered the crash of an L1011 airliner in the Everglades, with arms, legs and heads lying all over the place, saw perhaps a hundred or so surgeries in doing some occasional medical writing, including double amputations on accident victims and debridement of burn victims, and saw any number of shot people waiting for ambulances, without much problem. But what insane criminals do to people, especially women — that I can't look at, or write. When I deal with such subjects in the Prey series, I promise you that the violence is toned down.
Far down.

Mind Prey is the only one of my books to be made into a movie, a TV movie. It was, as us serious movie critics say, Not Very Good. The movie starred Eriq La Salle as Lucas Davenport, which has led to some awkward questions when I've been out signing books.
La Salle is black, and Lucas, in the books, is white. The question I get — always from white people, as far as I can remember — is usually like, "What did you think of the casting in Mind Prey?" The real question, there, is, "How come a black guy is playing Davenport, and what do you think about that?"
I tell the truth: it didn't bother me at all. I hardly thought about it. I'd seen LaSalle quite a bit in ER, and was a fan of his.
What makes it difficult is trying to explain that while LaSalle is fine as Davenport, the movie wasn't any good. That sounds like some kind of racist tap-dance, sending a signal to the questioner that you understand their signal about casting... and... you know the rest.
But the problem with the movie — which actually had pretty decent actors in the cast — is that the production sucked. The script, the sets, the editing, and so on. Nothing wrong with the actors, but a bad production drives me crazy.
At one point (this is all from memory, I don't actually own the movie, as far as I know) one of the characters knocks on a door and announces, "Minnesota police..."
Like we've only got one police department in Minnesota? I mean, the Twin Cities — where the movie wasn't filmed — isn't the biggest metro area in the US, but there are three million people living there. It ain't Mayberry.
It also looked like they spent upwards of $300 on sets, which didn't much resemble any police department I've ever been in. The fictional police department looked like something left over from Barney Miller.
Ah, well. Deep in my soul... I don't care. I'm a novelist.

Here's a small spoiler, so don't read it if you haven't gone through the book before. In the end, the young girl in cistern survives. In the original version of the book, she didn't. That, I have to say, was pretty bleak, especially the way I played it out, with the mother finding the girl.
The publisher at the time called me up and said, "Please, please, let her survive." I took a survey of family and friends, and the consensus was unanimous and vociferous: you're a complete moron if you don't let her survive; in fact, you're a complete moron for killing her off in the first place.
I had to jump through my ass to rearrange things so she lived. But when it was done, I was pleased, I have to say.
The book no longer makes you want to jump off a bridge.
Which is better than the alternative.

— John Sandford, March 7, 2011