Sept. 22 2010 12:00 AM

From deadlines to dead people Pulitzer-winning journalist becomes best-selling author

There is a minor spoiler in this story that will surprise you.

Mystery and thriller readers are in for a treat. John Sandford, author of 30 fiction thrillers, is making a rare stop in Lansing at the Okemos Schuler Books & Music Wednesday, Sept. 29.

Sandford is especially known for his 20 “Prey” novels featuring Minneapolis detective Lucas Davenport, but he is on the road promoting his relatively new series that features police detective Virgil Flowers. He has written four novels in that series, which grew out of the “Prey” franchise. Fans have adopted the one-name moniker since “prey” is in the title of all 20 “Prey” books.

Flowers was first showcased in the book, “Invisible Prey.”

Sandford — a pseudonym for John Roswell Camp — also wrote four books in what are called the “Kidd” series before moving on to the Davenport books, which feature a tough Midwestern detective who leads an elite group in the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. The unit gets all the tough cases — and endures constant criticism from the media and traditional law enforcement agencies.

Sandford said that although his Kidd books were somewhat successful, it wasn’t until his agent had a conversation with him about what makes a best-selling thriller that his writing jumped to the next level.

“I learned about using gravity, a back-story and writing to a certain length,” he said. “The real magic for me was when I was writing the first Davenport thriller (‘Deadly Prey’).

“My co-workers (at the St. Paul Pioneer Press) would see me wandering around the skywalks. I could barely stand work. I would literally spend 14 or more hours thinking about the book and writing. It was the most obsessed time in my whole life.”

At the time, Camp was already a successful newspaper reporter and columnist, but he yearned to be a fiction writer. Some of that may have come from associates in his previous job at the Miami Herald: Edna Buchanan and Carl Hiaasen, both successful mystery and thriller writers, shared the newsroom with him.

Camp, who started at the St. Paul newspaper in 1978, went on to become a Pulitzer finalist in 1980 and then won the award in 1986 for a series on the farm crisis.

“I had a good job, but when I analyzed it I didn’t have enough to send my kids to state college. It just freaked me out.”

Then, in one day, Camp landed a two-book contract for $400,000 with another $400,000 for paperback rights: “I went from nothing to everything in one hour.”

Camp, now known as Sandford, would help create a Midwestern style of thriller different from that being written on the coasts.

“It’s much easier to write about a place you live in. There are things you don’t find out about unless it’s the place you live.”

He doesn’t believe the Midwestern approach has hindered his writing in any way. Pointing to the late mystery writer Tony Hillerman, who set his books in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, he said, “You write it as a national story.”

Sandford said he is still drawing on his experiences as a newspaper writer to bring a sense of reality to his books.

He points to one series in which he spent a month in a state prison researching a specialized training program primarily made up of lifers. “I talked to all the killers in prison, and that experience allows me to visualize prisons.”

The most recent Virgil Flowers’ book, “Bad Blood,” takes place in farm country and likely draws on his Pulitzer-winning series on farming. Although the Prey and Flowers series are vastly different, both series have unusual plots, characters and settings accompanied with great dialogue.

This time Flowers is sent to investigate a cut and dried murder of a farmer by a hometown football hero, who then hangs himself in prison. Asking “why” leads to a complicated story of a long-held community secret and a suspenseful ending, which is a trademark of any Sandford book.

What’s coming up for Sandford and his Prey series is the spoiler.

“I think I’m coming to the end of the ‘Prey’ series,” he said. “I’ll probably write one or two more books.”

In the final “Prey” book, Sandford will reintroduce patently bad guy Jason Kidd to readers. “Davenport will bring Kidd on to work with him, never realizing he was a criminal.”

What happens to Davenport is up in the air, but Sandford’s writing career will have gone full circle and is likely not to miss a beat.

John Sandford

7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 29 Schuler Books & Music 1982 W. Grand River Ave,, Okemos (517) 349-8840