For John Sandford, Minnesota remains the perfect crime scene

Author John Sanford
Author John Sandford left Minnesota for New Mexico to escape the "gloom of winter," he said, but the state remains the setting for his two thriller series.
Evan Frost | MPR News

When John Sandford is traveling around Minnesota, he's got one thing on his mind: Is this a good place for a crime?

A veteran thriller writer with more than 40 novels to his name, Sandford has staged crime scenes all across the state, from the North Woods to the Mall of America.

'Escape Clause' by John Sandford
'Escape Clause' by John Sandford
Courtesy of publisher

His newest book, "Escape Clause," revolves around a heist at the Minnesota Zoo: A group of thieves makes off with two rare tigers. Their plan to sell the tigers' body parts on the black market for alternative medicines backfires as detective Virgil Flowers picks up their trail.

Sandford walked the zoo for research, plotting out the thieves' route.

He scouts locations for his books just like a film crew would. He needs to know just the right spot for his character to dump a body sealed in a refrigerator.

"I'll look for interesting-looking towns. I'll look for places that have some kind of distinctive characteristics that will make sense when I write them — that will sound like Minnesota," Sandford said.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

Sandford is a pseudonym for John Roswell Camp, 72. He lives in New Mexico now, but he called Minnesota home for 30 years. Both of his best-selling series, starring detectives Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, still take place in the region, complete with references to the State Fair and Minnesota Public Radio.

Before he turned to writing thrillers, he worked as a newspaper reporter. That's where he got his start covering crime. "I've seen a lot of bodies laying around parking lots," he said.

Sandford wrote for the Miami Herald for much of the 1970s, and then for the St. Paul Pioneer Press until 1990. The shift in crimes he saw from Florida to Minnesota intrigued him.

"The kind of crime they had down there was trashy, weird, bizarre, crazy stuff that was usually done out of stupidity and general venality and greed," Sandford said of Florida.

"The Twin Cities and Minnesota in general didn't have that random, trashy crime as much, but they had a lot of crimes that were really dark, and seemed to be the thing that got hatched over a long cold winter."

At the Pioneer Press, Sandford went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his features on a family weathering the farm crisis of the mid-1980s. But as an avid thriller fan — he reads roughly one per week — he turned to writing his own full time.

Over the last 25 years, Sandford has become a master at cooking up new and twisted crimes for his novels. His heroes, Davenport and Flowers, stay the same, but he's always in need of a new villain.

"That's the whole key to writing thrillers: It's not really the heroes," he said. "Finding the bad guy is the problem, and that really is a problem sometimes, because you don't want to have 27 consecutive serial killers. You're going to want to have something a little unusual."

At his current pace, Sandford writes two books a year. Writing that fast is something he picked up as a reporter, he said.

"If you write 750 words a day, if you can do that, you can write two novels a year with a lot of time to spare."

To feed his plots and craft the storylines, he pulls from everyday life — from "looking out the window," he said. Then he drops those new crimes and new villains down wherever he's scouted in Minnesota.

"I just like the place. I like the landscape. I like the people up here," he said. "I just like it."