Mysterious relic spurs hunt in Minnesota

By Walt Braun

Virgil Flowers is an engaging protagonist. He is 6-2, “unless he was wearing cowboy boots, which he usually was,” and is the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension’s sole agent in the southern part of the state.

Virgil served in Bosnia as an Army captain, has longish blond hair and loves to fish - even writing about it occasionally for outdoor publications. He’s tech savvy, enjoys a good square dance, is partial to McDonald’s quarter-pounders with cheese and doesn’t like to shoot people. He’s a smart, a very smart, good ole boy.

Virgil keeps busy stalking “Ma” Nobles, who he’s convinced is selling counterfeit “aged” barn lumber to folks in the East who’ll pay a small fortune for the stuff. When he gets a call from his supervisor, his attention is immediately redirected.

A minister/archaeologi-st/college professor who lives in his region and is dying from cancer has stolen a relic from a dig in Israel. It’s not an ordinary relic, if there is such a thing. It’s a stele about 3,000 years old with hieroglyphics on one side and primitive Hebrew markings on the other. And it just might indicate that David’s son Solomon, a legendary figure in Jewish history, was actually an Egyptian pharaoh named Siemun. Among other things, that would mean that Jesus, from the House of David, was the descendent of an Egyptian.

Virgil’s boss tells him that a woman from Israeli antiquities is on her way to work with him to recover the stele. He doesn’t find out until after he’s worked with her for a couple of days, when the real Israeli archeologist shows up, that the first woman is a Mossad agent. She wants the stone, but not because it’s a treasure. She wants it destroy or at least stow it away to protect Israel from allegations that Jewish claims to a homeland are hollow.

And she’s not the only person after it.

A couple of Turks show up, one of whom might or might not be inclined to cut off his enemies’ testicles. There is also a rich Texan who admires ancient treasures, a TV host of a travel-adventure show who needs a ratings boost, and, for good measure, a mysterious individual from Hezbollah known simply as the Hatchet. And we shouldn’t leave out Ma Nobles, who Virgil takes a liking to despite her wicked ways.

Rather than a shooting war, these parties engage in a bidding war, with the price of the stele reaching several million dollars. As for the minister/academic who stole it, he has Virgil alternately exasperated and impressed. Virgil senses that if he didn’t have to haul him in, he just might like the guy.

As things turn out, Virgil dispenses plenty of graphic threats, but he doesn’t have to shoot anyone. The reverend does fire snake shot at the Turks in one confrontation, and when they attack his cabin, he lets loose, loudly but relatively harmlessly, with a shotgun, leaving one of them with a tender rear end.

In the end, all the central characters get pretty much what they deserve, and the reader is treated to a novel that’s, well, a hoot. The characters are delightful, especially Awad, a young Lebanese who thinks he’s a ladies’ man and who works for Virgil because he’s afraid if he doesn’t he’ll end up in a CIA torture chamber.

The author, John Sandford, moves the story along with a light touch, dialogue that at times is laugh-out-loud funny and a steady stream of Virgil’s musings.

Sandford is an accomplished, even prolific novelist, perhaps best known for a “Prey” series of more than 20. Sandford is a pen name for John Roswell Camp, who as a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press won a Pulitzer Prize in the mid 1980s for a yearlong series on a southwest Minnesota farm family during the Midwest farm crisis.

Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.

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