The above illustration, "Blowing Bubbles," has been adapted for use here by generous permission from the artist, Cyril Rolando.

April 18, 2012

Doctor Death

This week's theme is Heroes & Villains, the brainchild of the amazing woman who brings you Jen's Book Thoughts. Yesterday I gave some space to hero Lucas Davenport, the Minneapolis cop created by John Sandford. Today and tomorrow this space belongs to arguably the two most memorable villains Davenport has faced. Sandford has a real knack for creating 3D bad boys and girls: grotesque serial killers, brilliant psychopaths, and whack jobs who kill for motives other than the pleasure of so doing. So choosing just one or two out of the long line of nasties Davenport has vanquished could have been a wrenching choice but Sandford made it easy. I simply chose the only two prominent villains who were the leading antagonists in multiple novels. (I say prominent because I know of at least one criminal who appeared in a non-leading role in several books in the Prey series.)

First up is respected pathologist Dr. Michael Bekker, the top villain in Eyes of Prey. Respected, yes, and an extreme narcissist (as so many serial killers are). Vain, completely consumed by his own physical beauty, he is possibly even more concerned with his clothes than is Lucas. An addict, Bekker takes multiple categories of drugs multiple times a day: cocaine, amphetamines, barbiturates, steroids -- if it's mood altering, he takes it. And yet he remains a distinguished light of the medical profession. He's noted for his very fine research on death and dying. Well, and why not? Bekker is fixated on discovering whether there is anything for the human spirit after death. Just maybe during his time in Vietnam, Bekker killed for the first time. And liked it so much he very quietly began taking lives in the US hospitals where he works and has free reign to do his "research." The nurses and staff think him "creepy," and nickname him Dr. Death. But no one has any real evidence that the handsome doc is anything except a bit strange.

And then Bekker decides that his wife needs to die. That way Bekker can get his hands on the beautiful old house and all the antiques his wife owns, sell everything and begin to live in the style to which he believes he is entitled. But Bekker is no dummy. On the contrary, he's highly intelligent. Calculating, conniving, and cunning. And cold. He enlists the aid of an accomplice to kill Mrs. Bekker in a particularly brutal fashion, so that Bekker himself will have an airtight alibi. It is that unusually airtight alibi that has the Minneapolis cops looking more closely at Bekker than they might otherwise have done.

The twist in the case is that there turns out to be an eyewitness to the murder, and the race is on between Davenport and Bekker to find that crucial witness. The crafty doctor feeds the cops a number of false clues, and the bodies begin to drop as Bekker creates more victims in order to distract Davenport.

Among the more fascinating aspects of the Bekker character are the parallels to real-life former physician Michael Swango. Swango was implicated in as many as 60 fatalities (mostly by poisoning or overdose) although he admitted to only four. Like the fictional doctor, Swango was noticeably fascinated by death early in his career. Like Bekker, Swango did not limit his predations to hospital patients. Where the two characters differ, if only by degree, is that Sandford's creation is more intelligent, more daring, more brutal, and more vengeful. But then, as Bekker learns after killing Lucas's lover, Lucas can be brutal and vengeful himself.

In Silent Prey, the sequel to Eyes of Prey, Bekker performs a daring courthouse escape during his trial for the crimes committed in the first book. Bekker, and thus the action, move to New York City. Davenport being the expert on Bekker, the NYPD brings him in as a consultant and once again, the hunt is on. But in a city with millions of eyes watching for this killer -- who continues to murder with impunity -- Bekker finds a way to make himself invisible.

Of all Sandford's books, Eyes of Prey and Silent Prey come closest to being horror stories rather than crime fiction. Bekker is irredeemably evil, a true monster. He has no good qualities, or if he does, he twists them for his own dark purposes. He has much in common with Hannibal Lecter, save that Bekker lacks Lecter's ability to restrain himself. To read a better summation of Bekker's character, check out what Sandford himself had to say about Eyes of Prey and Silent Prey.

Later this week, I'll introduce you to Clara Rinker, my favorite of all Sandford's villains. Unlike Bekker, who exists to horrify the reader, Rinker may very well get you on her side instead of Lucas's!

In keeping with yesterday's discussion of Davenport's top 100 songs of the rock era, what rock song would make a great theme for Dr. Michael Bekker? He has a fixation about mutilating the eyes of his victims, so perhaps you could work that in? Or not. All comments on this post will earn you a chance to win a copy (hardback or ebook) of the new Lucas Davenport book, STOLEN PREY, when it is released on May 15.

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