Book Review: Dark Angel by John Sandford
By Doreen SheridanMay 12, 2023
After the events of Pershing Bridge, Letty Davenport is something of a hero, especially to the many government agencies who could use a woman who can shoot as well under pressure as she can. When her actual employer, a United States Senator who’s finagled her a position as investigator for the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, calls her in for a new case, Letty’s more than ready to leave behind her newfound notoriety in order to get back on the road again.
She’s a little surprised that John Kaiser, her rugged roughneck partner in Pershing, wasn’t called in as well. Apparently, the National Security Agency wants only her for a task where she’ll be partnered up with Kaiser’s complete opposite. Rod Baxter is an out-of-shape computer programmer that the NSA wants to insert into Ordinary People, a hacker collective. Letty will act as Baxter’s bodyguard and general muscle, while posing as his scheming, money-motivated girlfriend. The plan calls for them to drive from their ostensible home in Florida all the way out to Ordinary People’s base in California. Their cover is the need to safely decrypt a Bitcoin wallet they’d used to stash some ill-gotten gains. Hopefully, the collective will have the necessary experience to help them out.
Letty has a few requests of their NSA contact as they go, including some prescription medicine that catches Agent Nowak off-guard:
“For what? Aren’t those attention-deficit things? I don’t…”
“We had seventy-two hours to nail Ordinary People. Seventeen of them are gone. We may need to stay awake for a long time and Adderall and Ritalin are basically speed,” Letty said. “We may also need a few pills for demonstration purposes. You know, to show them how far out we are. Not only hacker-criminals, we’re drug abusers.”
“You’ll have it in an hour,” Nowak said.
When they rang off, Baxter said, “The NSA: America’s crime family.”
After a series of misadventures, Letty and Baxter finally gain an audience with their targets, who demand proof of expertise in advance of a possible exchange of services. Once they’ve taken down the server farm belonging to the notorious far-right website SlapBack, they’re in.
But the more time our intrepid duo spends with Ordinary People, the more they’re convinced that the NSA’s ostensible reason for sending them in—to stop the hackers from shutting down the natural gas systems of an entire northern metropolitan area—seems hollow. Sure, the hackers are criminals, but they’re also all pretty decent people. As Letty and Baxter discover the truth behind the NSA’s mission, and as global events unfold, they realize that they’re in far more dangerous territory than expected.
Letty is as badass as ever in this second book in her standalone series. While Kaiser does show up in the later stages of Dark Angel, Baxter makes for a perfect and completely opposite foil for our action-loving heroine. Letty and Baxter’s relationship often reminded me of Harcourt and Economos from the excellent Peacemaker television series, which isn’t the first Peacemaker reference—albeit in a different context—in this page-turning novel. Letty’s calm interacts well with Baxter’s fatalism, as their senses of humor, human decency and basic justice overlap:
He agreed to give [up the money they’d found,] “Nineteen grand and change. Seems like a lot.”
“You wouldn’t have any use for it anyway, since you’re gonna get killed,” Letty said.
“You got me there,” Baxter said. “Now go away. I’m reading.”
He was reading a jumble of text, numbers, and symbols that shouldn’t make sense to anyone, but apparently did to him. “By the way,” he said, as she turned away. “SlapBack is up again. They claim they were taken down by Antifa.”
“They were,” Letty said. “You and me are about as anti-fascist as they come.”
Their patriotism anchors this thrilling, complicated story of interagency skullduggery, as Letty and Baxter struggle both to infiltrate and to protect Ordinary People from criminals who wish them all dead. Some of the slang might feel a little dated, but the commitment to coupling timeless values with modern innovations more than makes up for any lack of hipness. As always, John Sandford delivers a fast-paced mystery novel that doesn’t shy away from current events, with characters who refuse to conform to stereotype as they seek to ultimately do the right thing to serve our nation and its people.