Wherein I list the current series of Virgil Flowers novels and pontificate on them, both as a series and each as a standalone book. Note: I have never read the books in print, but I’ve listened to the audiobooks dozens of times. I also do not get any payment for this, and in fact, hope I don’t get in trouble for anything I might publish here against Mr. Sanford’s wishes (assuming he would ever deign to notice). I’m going to proceed with the assumption that this falls under the “fair use” part of the law.
This post does NOT contain any spoilers. I am writing this for the reader/listener new to the series and who might be wondering about it in terms of quality.
Full disclosure: I am very biased in that I think the narrator of the audiobooks, Eric Conger, is one of the best narrators I have ever heard, especially his most recent work. Listening to his work prior to this series clearly shows his accumulation of more and more skill in his profession. I believe he hit his stride with the first book in this series, and in every installment, he just gets better and better.
I mention this because I think it probably has a lot to do with my enjoyment of this series, so if for some reason you don’t like his work, well… all I can say is first go to audible.com and listen to the free samples from some of the books before buying. As an adjunct to that, clearly, my opinion of the books might be different had I read them from print rather than listening to the audiobooks. If you read this article and then go buy the print version only and hate them, don’t blame me. Though I seriously doubt that would happen.
A little backstory. You can safely skip this if you want to get right to the meat of this article, not much in this section is pertinent to deciding how to decide if the series might be of interest to you.
My interest in audiobooks is completely due to this series. Prior to this, I was not interested in audiobooks, being kind of old-fashioned and also addicted to the feel and scent of a printed book. Like most readers, that’s been a lifelong fetish of mine. But, by chance, I was in my car and trying out the free month of XM radio on my commute, and stumbled on the channel that plays snippets of audiobooks. The format of the channel, as I soon learned, was to play about a chapter of a particular audiobook at the same time every day. I don’t recall now if it was specifically a 30-minute time slot or what, it’s been some years now. But, as I said, by chance, during my commute every day was when Eric Conger read Dark of the Moon, the first in the Virgil Flowers series. Of course, I knew none of those names at the time, but I had heard of the author, John Sanford (though I hadn’t read any of this more popular Prey series featuring Lucas Davenport. I have since sampled a couple of them, also narrated by Eric Conger, and didn’t actually care that much for them).
In point of fact, I hadn’t read much in popular modern books in a while, though I’ve been known to do so in fits every few years. For example, I was hooked on the Janet Evanovich series featuring Stephanie Plum some years ago. I binged on every paperback in that series I could find, which at the time had about 10 of them. So yeah, I like to binge when the story is good and the characters are better. But other than Virgil Flowers, I haven’t found any series since Plum that really grabbed me (note to self, I see there are something like 25 Plum books now, I might need to revisit that addiction soon). I’m not saying there aren’t good series out there, but that I simply haven’t found them. I don’t count less than 4 books as a “series”, so since I’ve only read two of Dan Brown’s books featuring Robert Langdon, I wouldn’t try to compare those as a “series”. And I got kinda bored with Dan Brown and haven’t picked him up again lately. As I said, modern authors usually can’t keep me interested.
Anyway, listening on XM audiobooks soon became a habit and I found more than one story and narrator I loved at random by listening to them. But, sadly, when I extended my listening time to more than my commute, I found that the ones I liked were the exception, not the rule, even if the story seemed good. I’ve since tested unknown narrators reading books I loved (Lord of the Rings, etc.) and found that, for me, the quality of the narrator makes or breaks the audiobook for me. In other words, if I don’t absolutely love the narration, I’d rather go back to print and read to myself. As you can imagine, my audiobook library, though large in book count, is rather narrow in the number of narrators. If you feel this way too, check out Suzanne Bertish’s performance reading City of Women by David R. Gillham and Stephen Fry’s rendition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Top shelf stuff.
Overall Series Notes
Let’s talk about the series as a whole, then I’ll break down each book. Again, no spoilers here so don’t expect any. However, my comments might spoil the fun of deciding for yourself the quality and good/bad things about them, so continue according to your own judgment. Where I have criticism, I will try not to give anything away, story-wise.
In my experience, it is very difficult to maintain a series for more than a few books without becoming repetitive or formulaic in some way, or just plain boring. Sanford (with help from Conger) has managed to do the opposite with this series (though I suspect Sanford has several friends helping him write these, based on some comments he’s made in interviews). Overall, the trend is that the stories, characters, and performances get better and better. However, I have my favorites and least favorites, as the next section makes clear, but those opinions have little to do with the quality of the story and characters. Rather, I focus on the replay/re-read value and overall feel-goodiness of a specific book.
Another thing about most series, if you don’t read them in order, you can lose a lot, or get lost, even when the author tries hard to make them as standalone as possible. I experienced all these books in order so I can’t say for sure, but it seems like Sanford did a great job of filling in the reader when needed, though I personally think some of it would spoil the story a little if you went back to read the book he referred to when giving backstory, plus there’s some strength in recurring characters that would be lost or muddled. However, having re-listened to them multiple times out of order (some books as many as a dozen times) it is my opinion that out of order reading would not hurt these books much at all. Still, there’s a reason I try hard to read a series in order, but part of that is my own foible showing its head. I do enjoy that first time through having no clue how things will turn out. Recommend: Read in order the first time.
Anyway, let’s look at the publisher’s summary for the first book:
“Virgil Flowers kicked around for a while before joining the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. First it was the army and the military police, then the police in St. Paul, and finally Lucas Davenport brought him into the BCA, promising him, “We’ll only give you the hard stuff.””
If you are at all familiar with Sanford’s other successful series, you’ll recognize Lucas Davenport’s name. If not, be aware these are stories about a detective, and he’s investigating some nasty crimes in most of them. If you don’t like police procedurals or detective stories, you may still enjoy Virgil Flowers – in fact, he may turn you into a fan of the genre. But that didn’t happen for me. I was not what I would call a “fan” of the genre, and while I like crime stories, and thought that surely I’d also enjoy Sanford’s other series just as much, the reality is I simply don’t. I’m apparently not a “genre” type. Unless there’s a genre for “gritty yet lighthearted, even funny in places, realistic crime-related novels”. That would be a genre I’d claim.
So, with all this in mind, here are some caveats/trigger warnings for the sensitive types: graphic violence, gruesome crimes of many kinds, graphic detail (noticeably less than Sanford’s Prey series, though), off-color humor, foul language of all kinds, religious matter (both appropriate and “sacrilege” depending on your perspective), animal abuse, child abuse, verbal abuse, grammar abuse, mansplaining, and probably some white male privilege in there for good measure (though apparently, I am unable to fairly judge on that last point).
Having said all that, it is my opinion this is not a terribly graphic or nasty series compared to others in the genre. It notably lacks any explicit sex scenes, though hints and has some “soft” sexuality, nothing I wouldn’t rate PG-13.
As I mentioned, I didn’t enjoy the three Prey books I tried, even though Conger narrated those too, and I think it’s because there’s more graphic violence and detail, and just overall darker stories where people come to very a bad end. Supposedly, Virgil Flowers appears in some of the Prey novels but I haven’t been able to find out which ones or I would probably read those just to get more Virgil. I’ll put them here if I ever figure that out.
Anyway, on to the individual books. I give a letter grade, like in school, for the following:
- Story – overall quality of the story. Very subjective, as all of these are, but especially this one. I include characters in this rating because I don’t think it’s possible to rate a story in a vacuum. In some cases, the characters are the story, and if they are recurring characters they boost the score higher. So think of this as an aggregate score if you need to. I am not a book reviewer and refuse to split hairs or try to make this some academic exercise.
- Performance – Eric Conger’s performance. I decided not to put this one because I consider his “worst” performance (Book 1) to be better than 90% of other narrators I’ve ever heard, and his increasing quality goes up without fail throughout the series. Not on a linear line the whole way, but always increasing. I feel like the increase was fairly linear up until the last 3 or 4 books, then went exponentially better. I mention this in case you are thinking of just getting a couple of the books for some reason.
- Replay – this is related to Story, of course, because only a good story has good replay, but I also have to consider how the story leaves me feeling. I don’t read or listen to books to be depressed afterward. A couple of these books didn’t comply so well with that for me.
By definition, these grades have to be somewhat relative to each other. My purpose here is not to grade the books compared to all the books I’ve read, but to compare them with the others in this series. In other words, a book rated a B or C here I would still get an A if taken in the context of books I’ve read outside this series. Adjust your interpretations accordingly.
Book 1: Dark of the Moon – Story: B, Replay: B
It’s hard to rate this one with the same perspective as the others, because, as I mentioned above, I heard this book in pieces on XM radio the first time through. I can’t recall how far I got before I finally just bought the audiobook myself to start over, but I do remember missing some installments and also that I didn’t come in at the start.
Anyway, as anyone who went to school knows, a B is a respectable grade, so don’t take the lack of AA rating to mean this is a bad book. After all, it’s the one that hooked me in and kept me coming back. Had I written this article without any other books in the series, this would have gotten an AA. I listened to it many times before I got Book 2.
Book 2: Heat Lightning – Story: A, Replay: A
And a good thing I did replay Book 1 many times before getting this one, wringing the most out of it, because I am sure I wouldn’t have replayed book 1 as much. Not because Book 1 is bad, but because this one is so good. It’s a solid letter grade better in both story and replay, which is significant when the lowest grade given is a C-. But honestly, I think I can objectively say this book is significantly better than Book 1 in almost every way by any measure.
Book 3: Rough Country – Story: B, Replay: B
Coming in the long shadow of Book 2, it’s no surprise this can’t be an AA rating. Which I need to be clear about, again, that this is still a great story and book. There are things about it I love to go back and replay for, moments in the story and character interactions – thus the B+, which is not a grade to sneeze at. Still, the story and handling of some of the characters aren’t as good as some others in the series. The bar is set rather high.
Book 4: Bad Blood – Story: B-, Replay: C-
I almost gave a D to replay, and it’s a close shave, but I have to admit some personal bias about the subject matter that I’m unfairly sensitive to and really impacts my “feel-goodiness” score that is part of the Replay grade. This, hopefully, somewhat explains the disparity before the Story grade, which is quite high, and the Replay grade, which is the lowest in this series. I can’t say more without spoilers, but contact me if you want to know more and I’ll happily spoil away. This is definitely my least favorite, and though I hate to say it, if I’d have skipped it completely I would not be any worse for it. I can objectively recognize the high craftsmanship of the story, but it left me feeling more like the Prey series books do. Not so good.
Book 5: Shock Wave – Story: B, Replay: B
There’s a theme here. The BB grades could easily be AA if evaluated alone, outside of the context of the AA books here. This book has a lot to offer, and I’ve replayed it almost as much as the AA books. This is mostly because, at this stage, there was only one AA available to me. When this one came out, I had listened to Book 4 maybe twice, Books 1 and 3 probably four or more times, and Book 2 eight or ten times. So this one got a lot of replays while I waited for the next book.
Book 6: Mad River – Story: B, Replay: C
The story is pretty good overall, and certainly, it’s well-written. But I can’t give the story an A because of the particular criminals and crimes. I can’t elaborate without spoiling it, as I hope you understand, but I can say that my bias is very likely my own personal life experience coming into play here. For that same reason, the Replay score is not great. I have replayed it a few times, three, I think. So I don’t hate it, but there are so many better books in the series by this time, this one gets a C. When the next book hit, that didn’t help this one’s case much at all. Having said that, if you are reading the series, don’t miss this one at least once. The story is a B after all.
Book 7: Storm Front – Story: A, Replay: A
This is a tough one. If I’d written this article back before I’d read Book 8, this would have two A+ grades. Until Book 8 came out, in fact, this was the most-replyed book I had, so for me, it’s slightly better than the other AA grades listed, but not enough to readjust all the grades or invent some new gradient. My complaints are minor and would be spoilers, so if we talk one-on-one after you’ve read it, I’ll share.
Book 8: Deadline – Story: A+, Replay: A+
Yep, two A+. I was tempted to be stupid about it and add more pluses. So far, this is my single favorite book in the series, but it’s a close shave with the other A+ book. This one has a kind of perfect storm of story elements, fun, things I can personally relate to, characters, along with the crimes and how they are resolved. I would be shocked if Sanford beats this one (assuming he continues the series).
Book 9: Escape Clause – Story: A, Replay: A
This one would get two A+ grades except the specific crime bothers me. What can I say, I love tigers. I know it’s fiction, but… “because, feels, bro”. Still, I have replayed this one as much as any other in the series and am not tired of it yet. So many characters and great moments.
Book 10: Deep Freeze – Story: A+, Replay: A+
This is another one that knocks it out of the park for me. Absolutely wonderful story and performance, with feel-goodiness at just about the max. I laugh out loud even after listening to this one over 5 times now. But also feel the lows just as much, the crimes, relating to the criminals, etc. Grades well-earned. I am not sure I’d feel the same if this were a standalone book, by the way. Recurring characters mean a lot.
Book 11: Holy Ghost – Story: B+, Replay: B+
It’s hard to give a good Replay grade on this one, I’ve only listened to it twice. But, although it’s Conger at his very best so far in the series, I can’t quite give it an A for Replay. I think the problem is, as usual, the “feel-goodiness” factor just isn’t quite up to par for me. Almost. Thus a B+. That may change up or down as I get more replays in.
Well, you made it this far. Congratulations! In summary, if you think you’d like the series and you’ve tested the audio sample to see if you like Eric Conger’s narration, I recommend just starting with Book 1 and getting through them all. However, if you aren’t a series person and just want one audiobook for occasional entertainment, get Book 8. Even smarter, go read the synopsis of each book (only mild spoilers there) and see if the specific subject matter affects how you feel when added to my scores. Obviously, my scores might be meaningless anyway since they are highly subjective.