Sudden Prey — Behind the Scenes


This book is the most direct of any of the Prey novels [1]. The rest of the books start with a crime, and follow the investigation through the slow accumulation of clues. Most of the time the police are operating in the dark — if not wholly, then at least in part. There's none of that here [2].
It starts with a crime, yes, but the police are already on top of it [3]. They handle it, and it's messy, and that starts off the real plotline: one of revenge.
And really, that's all the bad guys want: revenge. Eye for an eye [4]. They don't have a deeper plan involving money, or power. Some of them don't even expect to get out of it alive, but they don't care. The revenge is more important.
And from the moment the revenge plan starts, the police know who's doing it. Oh, they don't have all the names, and they don't know where they're hiding — there has to be some element of detection in the book — but the who and the why is never in question. Everyone knows who, and everyone knows exactly why.
They just don't know what to do about it.
There is a principle in math (well, it affects everything in science, but the origin is in math) called emergent complexity. It's when you take simple things, and mix them together in simple ways, and the result can not be predicted, or accurately modeled, or even replicated reliably [5]. You have a simple system — just a few moving parts and a couple of rules describing their movement — but complex behavior emerges from it [6].
That's what's going on here: there's a simple plan, and it's made of simple parts: get revenge first, don't worry about secondary goals. But it goes wrong almost immediately, and other factors interfere, and complexity emerges from the system. Suddenly, nobody knows what's going to happen.
It's still direct — there aren't any b-story subplots of note in this book, no romantic entanglements, no quiet moments fishing, no iPod gift card to buy songs with. None of that. It starts with action, and it just keeps going. And, again, nobody knows where the action's going to end up [7]. It could even kill a major character.
It very nearly did.

The Weather Problem

Weather Karkinnen, Lucas's fiancé in this book, has been a thorn in the author's side for years, but only for reasons relating to how thrillers are constructed. It almost resulted in Weather getting killed off.
Long time readers know that it doesn't happen. Hell, anyone who reads the back covers or the inside jacket text or the reviews or anything about the books knows that Weather is still around in book twelve, in book eighteen, in book twenty, book twenty-five... So while it's a spoiler to say that she doesn't die in this book, the spoiler is well outside the statute of limitations for such things [8].
But that doesn't make the problem go away. It can be summed up with three simple points:

· Readers want a romance of some sort,
· New romance is much more exciting than old romance,
· Therefore, long-term relationships should not happen to main characters.

It's not how the real world works, of course. Many people are in happy, stable, long-term relationships, and it works fine for them. They may not be the most exciting of relationships, but that's fine too. It turns out that a most people don't like a huge amount of drama in their personal life [9].
But we expect that drama in fiction. If the main character is in a stable, loving, caring relationship, there's a sadistic tendency on the part of the reader to want something terrible to happen, just to shake things up. Otherwise, the relationship is just getting in the way of the story. And that point, as horrible as it might be, is true — you don't want anything to get in the way of the story [10].
That's why Weather is in the distant background in Night Prey, and why, while she's the focus of the b-plot in Mind Prey, she's not in the book for more than a few scenes. The relationship is not necessary for the story. But in this one, Weather is important, if only as a target for the bad guys. Lucas and Weather's relationship will therefore play a more important role, but it's still going to be stable. But since it's stable, it's boring.
Worse (the thinking goes), Lucas is no longer the lovable bad-boy rogue he used to be. He can't go out and "have fun" [11]because then he'd be unfaithful, and that's not acceptable. The presence of Weather mellowed him out, smoothed him out, and turned him into Decaf Davenport Lite [12]. Or at least, that's what some readers feel has happened.
The obvious solution is to kill her off. A lot of wives have been killed off in crime thrillers.
And that, really, is one of the reasons it didn't happen. The killing of wives (or of husbands, but it's more rare just because of the demographic breakdown of protagonists) is common. So much so that it's become a trope in fiction [13]. It's not that it's an unbelievable development in the book, or that it doesn't fit this kind of story. It's that it happens too much.
There's another problem with killing her off, and that's a matter of tone. If you look at the novel, there are only two places to get away with it: at the beginning, when the LaChaise gang is doing their run on targets, or at the end, in some kind of climactic showdown.
If Weather got killed in a climactic showdown, it ends the book on an amazingly down note. Lucas probably goes into a rage-and-grief fueled depression that lasts... well, forever, probably. Or he dies. Killing Weather at the end of the book would have the potential to end the series.
I'm not saying that it wouldn't make sense, or that it'd be written badly, but can you imagine the reader reaction if the author had done that? It would be a whole new level of insane.
Alternately, he could have killed off Weather at the beginning. That's a valid approach, and — aside from the problem of it being a cliché in crime fiction — it gives Lucas the drive to get the job done.
A little too much, in fact. If Weather gets killed early on, while the bad guys are still out there, Lucas could well go on a murderous rampage. That's a much darker turn of events, and while it wouldn't necessarily end the series, it would send it in a different direction. Lucas probably wouldn't be able to keep his position at the Minneapolis Police Department. He could go his own way, becoming a Jack Reacher -like character. He could go off somewhere far away and become a small-town cop in the country, drinking himself into a depression to forget. Or, again, the series could end.
Neither option appealed to the author, and he eventually decided on a compromise: Weather isn't killed, but she's so traumatized by the confrontation at the end of the book that she leaves. Readers don't even know this until the Secret Prey, and I got a lot of mail from confused fans who thought they'd somehow missed a book [14]. That gave Lucas the chance to be a loner again, to have a new romance again, to be the bad boy again, for at least a few more books.
Another aside regarding Weather: while her long-term survival is almost assured [15], her mere existence splits the fans such that they tend to fall into one of two camps:
One half (approximately) think that Weather is the best thing to happen to Lucas, and while they loved the bad boy Lucas of old, he's grown up, and it would be unrealistic for him to not grow up, and he's a better person now, and more believable, and there should be more sections dedicated to the wonderful loving family relationships between Lucas, Weather and Letty, Sam, and Gabrielle [16].
The other half of the fanbase basically want Weather to get hit by a train. Like, yesterday.
Neither group is going to get their wish. The relationship really can get in the way of the plot, and so it's off to the side as much as possible. But she's not going to get hit by a train, either. I apologize for any inconvenience.

A Note on Swearing

Once you ignore the people who insist that there's more swearing in the whatever Sandford book most recently came out than every other book combined [17], this one stands out as a common target. A few times a year I'll get an email that targets this book, Sudden Prey, as having the highest rate of swearing for the series.
And... it's high, I've got to admit that. It's still not the highest — Shadow Prey has held that title for more than twenty years now — but it takes second place. So what's going on here?
There are two things contributing, I believe. One is that there's one small section of one chapter — just a few lines of dialogue, really — in which the word "fuck" is used nine times. It's a bit of cop talk, and they're all in closed quarters and getting on each other's nerves, and it's grating but also funny, especially when there's a punchline later in the conversation that defuses the whole situation.
Still, that nine times over such a small space is unmatched density for the entire Prey series, and I think it sticks out in people's minds as being representative of the entire book when really it's just a statistical fluke [18].
The other contributing factor is, in its own way, a fun example of unexpected complexity, but in the sense of a chain of events that has unexpected results.
In the mid-90s, the author met an archaeologist in Israel who convinced him to get involved in Archaeology [19]. But the author had no training in archaeology, had no skills in digging, and had no experience with the equipment.
So he took some classes on surveying methods and skills at a Twin Cities technical college [20]. He was 53 at the time, and most of the students were in their late teens or early 20s. And they swore all the time.
And that swearing — and, I suspect, more than a few of the students other traits — ended up in the book. Or at least it rubbed off enough that it influenced things.
But if you see the word "fuck" nine times on a single page (it's in the middle of chapter Fifteen, page 211 in the original US hardcover, page 263 in the new US paperback) you might get the impression that the entire book's like that. It's not.


1. It's a bit like Mad River, but even that book has a few more layers woven between what Virgil sees and what's actually going on.

2. There's a difference between not knowing stuff and operating in the dark. It's natural to not have all the facts, but when you're completely in the dark, you don't even know necessarily what facts you should be looking for, or what kind of facts.

3. There's a point-of-view inversion in the opening chapter that only happens twice in the Prey series. In this one, you are shown the person you assume (at first) will be the victim and the one you assume (at first) is the killer, and then the narrative pulls that out from under you, and you find out it's almost the opposite. There's a similar thing in Naked Prey, but that one's more nuanced.

4. The title of the Dutch translation is Oog om Oog, which is literally "Eye for an Eye."

5. Jeff Goldblum demonstrates it in Jurassic Park, but he explains it badly and misnames it Chaos Theory. Now, emergent complexity is part of chaos theory, certainly, but in the movie he's just throwing terms around in a way that screwed up the meaning for a generation of viewers [21].

6. The classic example of it is the three-body problem. You have three objects floating in space. You have gravity between them. There is no formula you can use to perfectly predict where one of the objects will be at a given time, outside of six known stable solutions [22]. You have to model it, and your model may be very accurate, but it will never be perfect. At some point you're going to have to just shrug and say, "Okay, after this we really have no idea."

7. Chaos has another useful application in writing: it fills pages. If you have a lull in the action, suddenly have a bomb explode. You can work out the why of it later, but you'll kill a half-dozen chapters just dealing with the immediate actions taken by practically everyone. It might feel like a cheap technique for padding, and it might be, but at least it's more exciting than having the characters sit down to eat every time the author is stuck [23].

8. There is disagreement as to how long the statute of limitations should be. Everyone knows that the Titanic sinks, everyone knows that Vader is Luke's father, everyone knows that Lucas converts to Judaism in Hasidic Prey [24]. Most of this stuff is common knowledge, and yet some people are still appalled that you spoil the story even though the spoiler should be obvious to anyone with half a brain. Does Lucas die in this story? No. How do we know? There are more Lucas books after this. That kind of thing [25].

9. The author, however, has stated that he has a problem with Parker's Spenser series, because the whole loving relationship between Spenser and Susan is too detailed, and not relevant to the plot, and sickeningly sweet to the point where he wants someone to just plant a bomb in the fridge or something. Anything.

10. It'd be like if a main character in a thriller / adventure / mystery novel suddenly has a 69-page monologue on the evils of socialism and the virtues of capitalism, individualism, and self-reliance. It would totally break the narrative flow.

11. "Fun with a capital F," as one reader said. I feel she may possibly have been implying something.

12. Another direct reader quote. Yet another suggests he change his name from Davenport to La-Z-Boy.

13. And then you have things like the Death Wish series of movies, in which practically any female that gets near the main character is guaranteed to die a horrible death that must be avenged. That goes beyond tropes into something strange and unsettling [26].

14. I get a decent amount of email from people who didn't see such-and-such an event in a book, so they assume that they must have missed a book. Most of the time they didn't. The author just doesn't include major life events if they would derail the plot.

15. I won't say it's completely assured, because the Davenport family could use a bit of tragedy, don't you think? Just to shake things up a bit? Make things more interesting? [27]

16. And Sarah, his first daughter, because of course she belongs with Davenport instead of Jennifer, because Jennifer's a horrible shrew and evil and bad and she doesn't really care about Sarah and okay, yeah, I've received a lot of email complaining about the lack of Sarah in the books. The thing is, Sarah's got a caring mom, a caring step-father who is closer to her than Lucas is, several half-siblings. Yes, she's knows Lucas is her real dad, but his role is more that of rich uncle who's paying her way through college than anything else. That's the way things happen in reality. Please, please, get over it already.

17. The people who I direct to my Swearing Statistics page. Go read it now if you haven't already.

18. It's just a few lines of dialogue, but it accounts for nearly five percent of the Fuck content of the entire book.

19. The archaeologist is Amihai Mazar, and the author spent a lot of his earnings from the books sponsoring a dig at Tel Rehov, in Israel, the largest untouched tel in the country [28].

20. I believe it was the Dunwoody Institute. Now you know.

21. Don't even get me started on the damage that comic-book movies have done to science terminology. As much as I love comic books, I cringe every time Magneto says "Mutants are the next stage in Evolution," or something like that. Mutation does not work that way! Evolution does not work that way! Stop using words you don't understand! Augh! [29]

22. Those six stable solutions are called Lagrange Points, and if you want to know more you should really read about it elsewhere on the web, as I'm probably not supposed to explain math in these essays.

23. Steven Brust, one of my favorite authors, writes (amongst other things) a fantasy series called the Taltos series, named after the main character. Every time he's stuck for a plot development, he'll have the characters eat lunch or dinner or something, and describe it in full detail. He's very open about it, and has mentioned that you can tell he was having problems with a book when the characters eat more than usual.

24. I'm joking. It's actually Oy, Prey! [30]

25. Since there are seven books in the Harry Potter series, one could reasonably assume that the titular character doesn't die in book three. And yet, people still scream "Spoilers!" when you reveal a plot point like that.

26. The macho murder-rampage revenge wish-fulfillment fantasy genre actually sells very well, and that alarms me.

27. If you said "Yes!" to this, you are a horrible, sick person. Also, have you ever considered becoming a writer?

28. That's not a typo or anything. A "tel" is a hill, and most of the known "tels" around Israel are actually cities buried under successive layers of destruction, rubble, and subsequent rebuilding. Tel Rehov was just the largest one nobody had ever excavated.

29. One might actually believe that comic book writers aren't required to know anything about physics, chemistry, biology, math, politics, philosophy, history, geography, language, logic, or storytelling. Clearly that's crazy talk.

30. Yeah, I'll stop now.