Author Topic: The Baddie Rides the Bicycle  (Read 252 times)

Andre Jute

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The Baddie Rides the Bicycle
« on: April 15, 2024, 01:41:09 pm »
The Baddie Rides the Bicycle
TOXIC PREY John Sandford
Reviewed by Andre Jute

You don't often see bicycles in literature (as distinct from explicitly and completely bicycle- and touring-focussed writing of a high standard, of which there is a considerable amount for those who wish to seek it out) and even less in the sort of literature I read -- in common with most other novelists, mainly non-fiction and superior adventures and thrillers. But the absence of bicycles in good literature may change, and the start date will be in the second week of April 2024 when John Sandford's Toxic Prey was published. John Sandford is the pseudonym of the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Camp.

Toxic Prey is the 34th in Sandford's Prey series about the Midwestern cop Lucas Davenport, by now a free-floating Deputy US Marshall; Lucas is rich from computerised training for police departments he devised, and has political influence from periods he worked for the governor, now a senator, which accounts for him being able to choose his cases. It is also the third in the series of Letty Davenport cases, as they are teamed up. Letty is Lucas' adopted daughter; she works for Homeland Security but by the influence of her father is permanently attached as his investigator to a Senator with enough clout to get things done.

Sandford is a superior writer with a taut style on the edge of Hemingwayesque, though I suspect that only another professional writer will notice, as Sandford is completely in command and very disciplined, whereas Hemingway too often slid over into a parody of himself, especially towards the end. Sandford doesn't use two words where one will do, but in a standard thriller length finds plenty of space for large casts of characters all adequately characterised and distinguished from each other. And, of course, plenty of space for lots of fraught action. A scattering of wit is also appreciated.

The backbone of Toxic Prey is the twisted belief of the British physician, Dr Lionel Scott, that humanity is a virus on Gaia, and consequently killing half or more of the world's population will heal Gaia. Before you laugh, real people with plenty of influence and credibility believed and still believe the same nonsense: Jacques Cousteau (deep sea diver and UN influencer) and Ted Turner (founder of CNN) were both happy to calculate how many people per day would have to be murdered to "save Gaia".

Scott doesn't just mouth off, he acts. He works out how to combine an Ebola-like virus with the measles virus, and how to make it, transport it, and spread it among the unknowing populace by infecting major air travel hubs. And he has no problem recruiting fanatics to carry his diabolical concoction into travel crossroads worldwide. After that it will be a matter of malthusian mathematics. (Sandford will never in a million years allow himself the luxury of that attractive alliteration for fear of putting a fraction of his readers off for having to look up a word.) Now Scott has gone missing and the Senator Letty works for wants to know what happened to a virus researcher with astronomical clearance who has suddenly disappeared.

Buncha psychopaths, you're already thinking. But a Sandford novel, and especially one of his Prey novels, is by definition filled with clinically certifiable psychopaths on both sides. Some are just on the right side of the law and of morality. And many are likeable, much more interesting even in cameo than the characters of lesser writers.

Scott and his accomplices are traced to a New Mexico valley dead-ended by vertiginous mountains and stoppered at the other end by a town of 7000 souls.

I want to skip the extended tense action here and at Albuquerque so as not to spoil the plot, and to concentrate on the great novelty Sandford introduces, Scott's attempt to escape the blockade by police and a complete battalion of Army military police plus surveillance helicopters -- on a bicycle!

Scott sends one of his fanatics, disguised, to buy him a bicycle. The only specifications we hear are "mountain bike" and "flat pedals". The bicycle size and the desired gears are never mentioned. There's more discussion of the price than of anything else. She comes out of the LBS (local bike shop -- cyclist argot) with a Norco Fluid FS4, a helmet with again no size specified, plus gloves. At a minimum, if I were to ride cross-country at night with only a sliver of moon, I'd want goggles as well to protect my eyes. And I'd want to specify wide, knobbly, puncture-proof tyres.

But, worse, Scott, having planned to do a fair part of his bicycle escape on various highways, rips the three reflectors off the bike and leaves them as a clue to be found by the hunters. Okay, you might argue that he's escaping stealthily, and doesn't want reflectors or a lamp giving him away, but actually, I think he runs a bigger risk of being run over or stopped by the cops for being a hazard to the few cars on the road. I know, I know, a road traffic offence doesn't stack up high against several murders already and conspiracy to murder further billions.

Next, to pass a police checkpoint, Scott goes bush, or more precisely, he goes offload into a forest of piñon. These are Pinyon nutbearing pines, pretty spiky, stated to be wild-growing in a "scattered design". Even if the piñon were formally planted in straight rows, riding through them at dark of night would be impossible without a lamp and goggles, no matter how desperate the rider. And Scott is presented to us right at the beginning of the novel as a mountain biker with a history of falls, so he's no ignorant newbie.

In an otherwise meticulously researched novel, these lapses, obvious to any experienced cyclist, throw a slight shadow over other facts stated in the novel but outside the reader's expertise.

Still, while I'm banging on about it because I'm reviewing Toxic Prey in the first instance for my cycling group, it's a suspension of disbelief of a far lesser magnitude than we give to writers we read while waiting for the next John Sandford novel. John Sandford has earned it for years of thrills.

Toxic Prey is a super thriller. Pity though that it is the baddie who rides the bike.

Copyright © Andre Jute 2024
Free to reprint on not-for-profit netsites and in print materials as long as the text is not altered and this copyright and reprint notice is in place.

John Saxby

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Re: The Baddie Rides the Bicycle
« Reply #1 on: April 18, 2024, 10:04:03 pm »
Andre, if I can't manage to get the book, at least I've got your review! What.A.Read. -- as always.

On the matter of Bikes in Proper Literature, have you read Jane Urquhart's novel, The Night Stages?  Much of it is set in your extended neighbourhood. Some readers found it had too much about a bike race; for me, not really enough.  But her prose can be sublime. 

On a lighter note, I hugely enjoyed Eric Newby's Round Ireland in Low Gear, in which Kerry'n'surrounds are also prominent.  (If you see a bias there, you're spot on.)

Cheers,  John

Mike Ayling

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Re: The Baddie Rides the Bicycle
« Reply #2 on: April 18, 2024, 11:04:30 pm »
I enjoy John Sandford and will look out for this one.


Andre Jute

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Re: The Baddie Rides the Bicycle
« Reply #3 on: April 19, 2024, 12:05:07 pm »
Thank you for your kind words, gentlemen.

I had Eric Newby in mind in the parenthetic disclaimer in the first sentence.

But Jane Urquhart is new to me; I'll order a copy of her book right after I finish my correspondence; thanks for the suggestion.