A drolly fraudulent plan to reverse the fortunes of a declining Minnesota town hits a snag in the form of a much more serious spate of felonies.
Wheatfield mayor Wardell Holland, who lost a foot in Afghanistan, sees no reason why he shouldn’t take intellectually and sexually precocious teenager John Jacob Skinner’s advice about having Janet Fischer, Skinner’s frequent bedmate, masquerade as the Blessed Virgin at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The apparently miraculous sightings of the faithful will put Wheatfield back on the map, increase tourism, and juice the local economy, all without hurting a soul. But then a series of shootings outside the church indicate that although souls may be getting saved, bodies are having a tougher time. Iowa visitor Harvey Coates isn’t seriously injured, but Betty Rice, a second visitor, is wounded seriously enough to warrant a call to Virgil Flowers, of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (Deep Freeze, 2017, etc.). Leaving his pregnant girlfriend, Frankie Nobles, back in Mankato, Virgil drives the hour to Wheatfield and finds—nothing: no obvious suspects, no motive, no forensic evidence, not even a good place to get lunch. Looking for clues about the likely weapon, he stumbles on the rotting corpse of Glen Andorra, a farmer whose shooting range drew many local marksmen, and the mystery darkens. Andorra was almost certainly killed by someone who wanted the use of his .223 rifle for some long-distance target practice, but who and why? When the shooter scores a fatal shot on retired health care aide Marge Osborne, Virgil, immediately assuming she’s been the real target from the beginning, narrows his focus, still to no avail. Why would anyone kill such an inoffensive old lady? It must be all about money—but where’s the money?
It would be nice if the payoff were more closely linked to the amusing setup, but the detection, though often tediously routine, carries all the authenticity you’d expect from a pro like Sandford.