Even in some of its more dicey neighborhoods, St. Paul, Minn., has the old-fashioned American look of an Edward Hopper painting. It's not particularly threatening looking, but for crime writer John Sandford, this is the territory of tough thugs, like the red-haired paraplegic pimp Randy Whitcomb in his latest book, Wicked Prey.
Sandford, a genial man who seems at ease in the world, is the author of more than two dozen crime novels, including the Prey series, featuring fictional detective Lucas Davenport.
Like the man who created him, Davenport is comfortable in his own skin. He is not, says Sandford, a "noir " kind of guy:
"He has a very domestic element in him," says Sandford of his fictional detective. "One of Davenport's idiosyncrasies is that he's a clothes horse, he likes to dress up."
When Davenport's work day is over and he's captured his prey — often in a blaze of gunfire — he retires to the arms of his wife and children in a posh neighborhood overlooking the Mississippi River. It's not the type of place you might expect a tough cop to live, but then again, Davenport isn't like most fictional cops. For one thing, he's not one of those depressive types who struggle with existential angst; rather, Sandford's hero likes his job.
"He likes to hunt people, he likes confrontations, he will get tough with people even if they don't deserve it because he likes that kind of thing. And this is actually based on cops I've known," says Sandford.
Sandford learned a lot about cops when he worked as a reporter at the Pioneer Press. He spent time hanging out with cops, and listening to how they talk, and he's still well known to many of the police officers at the St. Paul police department.
One of Sandford's long-time friends is Police Chief John Harrington, who he's known since Harrington worked undercover on city buses. Sandford doesn't ask his old friend for advice about his books, but Harrington says the attitude and police work in Sandford's prose are spot on.
"He gets [the details of police work] better than anyone else I've ever read," says Harrington. "It's the communication of how cops talk to each other, how cops think of each other and how we think about the world that he gets just right on."
Sandford looks for those telling details wherever he may be, whether it's prowling the city's streets or on a hunting trip with his buddies. On one particular hunting trip, Sandford's friend, writer Chuck Logan, shot a deer and the two men followed the wounded animal's trail of blood.
"All of a sudden you've got this whole thing that you know about tracking a blood wound through the woods," says Sanford. "That just showed up in a novel I wrote a couple of years ago about my other character Virgil Flowers, when they are tracking a blood trail from a guy who got shot in the woods. So I have a reference to what it actually looks like."
Fiction, Sandford says, works best when grounded in reality. Perhaps that's why the roots he planted in the Twin Cities more than 30 years ago remain so strong.
"Most people who are trying to write kind of sit in their basements and pull it out of their imaginations. It would be so much better if they just [went] outside and looked," says Sandford. "It doesn't have to be in the same neighborhood, it just has to be credible for that neighborhood. Just go outside and look at something and write it down and you'll find it is a very nice piece of writing."