Clara Rinker didn’t fuckin’ scream

By Evangeline Jennings

Although John Sandford’s flagship character, Lucas Davenport, never quite hits my spot, his Prey novels are deep rooted among my favourites. Why? His plots are never less than gripping. His dialogue has begun to rival Robert Parker’s. And his subsidiary characters are frequently fascinating. The best of these was Clara Rinker. A anti-heroine we can all relate to. A quintessential FemNoir role model – not least because she dies in the end.

I’ve taken the liberty of editing down the introduction to Certain Prey, the tenth in the Davenport series, to give you a feel for where Clara Rinker came from.

Of the three unluckiest days in Barbara Allen’s life, the first was the day Clara Rinker was raped behind a St Louis nudie bar called Zanadu … Rinker was sixteen when she was raped, a small athletic girl, a dancer, an Ozarks runaway … Rinker had taken up nude dancing because she could. It was that, fuck for money, or go hungry … The rape took place at two o’clock in the morning on an otherwise delightful April night … “You fuckin’ scream and I’ll break your fuckin’ neck.” She didn’t fuckin’ scream because something like this had happened before, with her stepfather. She had screamed and he almost had broken her fuckin’ neck … Rinker didn’t call the cops, because that would have been the end of her job. And, knowing cops, they probably would have sent her home to her step-dad …

Within a few pages, Clara has her revenge. She beats her rapist to death with a metal baseball bat with the connivance of the owners of the bar where she works. The way she does it shows them something they decide they can work with.

“Some heavy shit, Clara. How do you feel about this?”

Clara looked at Dale-Something’s body, the little ring of black blood around his fat lips, and said, “He was a piece of garbage.”

“You don’t feel nothin’?” Ernie asked.

“Nothin’.” Her lips were set in a thin, grim line.

Clara becomes a hit woman for the mob. A very successful assassin for hire.

She kills Barbara Allen – remember her? – for a Minneapolis attorney called Carmel Loan but kills a cop as well. This is what brings herto Davenport’s attention.

The interplay between Clara and Carmel is what makes Certain Prey such an outstanding story, and Rinker is the stand-out, the star. John Sandford obviously recognized this as he was writing the book because Clara Rinker escapes after almost killing Lucas Davenport.

Just when Rinker thought she was out, Sandford pulled her back in. Two or three books later, Mortal Prey starts with the soft-spoken hit woman lying in a Cancun hospital bed. A sniper’s bullets have killed her boyfriend – the son of a Mexican drug lord – and their unborn baby. Understandably, she’s pissed. Her husband, she decides, wasn’t the target. She was. Her former mob bosses wanted her silenced.

Hell bent on revenge, she returns to St Louis.

As an expert on the contract killer, Davenport is drafted down from Minneapolis to join the FBI hunt for Clara. The rest of the story is fun and predictable enough despite a series of rich plot surprises. The one that threw me the most was Rinker’s use of an exploding cell-phone. This was a device I had written into one of my own stories, and to see John Sandford get there first both pissed me off and made me think that maybe I had something going for me as a writer after all.

Clara Rinker dies at the end of Mortal Prey. But she had so much going for her that  Sandford brought her back again in his next book, Naked Prey, reincarnating her as the twelve-year old Letty West –  “a little Annie Oakley” who “wanders around with an old .22 and machete and a bunch of traps.” As the series continues and Davenport mellows with fatherhood, Letty joins Davenport’s family and the way things are going she’ll soon be the only bad-ass character Sandford has left.

Clara Rinker. RIP.

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