John Sandford's fourth Virgil Flowers novel opens with three deaths: one clear-cut case of premeditated murder and two suspected murders done up to look like suicides.

Only one of them is an actual mystery, and even that gets solved fairly early on. It's an intriguing start, and it works, because it turns out all three are somehow related to a year-old unsolved murder case of a teenager who had, by the look of it, been sexually abused by more than one person in the time leading up to her death.

During his investigation, Flowers meets a number of people who belong to a church called the World of Spirit. On the surface, they resemble the Amish, save for their attachment to modern conveniences and their tenuous-at-best connection to anything actually written in the Bible. A better comparison might be to the Branch Davidians; something more than one character in "Bad Blood" also notes. What's more, Flowers can't shake the feeling that the World of Spirit is some sort of front for a wide-scale child-abuse ring.

Sandford leads readers a step or two ahead of Flowers, which casts a dark, uncomfortable shadow over everything, and yet there are enough moments of levity - Flowers is a fun character, smart and honest with a healthy supply of cynicism and snark.

, and he has great chemistry with the local sheriff - to keep "Bad Blood" from falling into abysmal despair.

There are a few things that might extend past the limits of plausibility for some, especially as the World of Spirit cult mixes and matches from a comprehensive menu of sexually depraved acts - though perhaps in this case it's the soullessness that makes it entirely believable. More questionable are the occasional intuitive leaps that Flowers makes, and the risky scheme he concocts to ensnare the cult patriarch, which involves far too many variables. Other characters do call Flowers out on his elaborate chess game moves, but then the scheme works anyway.

These are, however, minor quibbles in what is a thoroughly engaging, suspenseful, satisfying story set amid a stark southern Minnesota late fall-early winter landscape; lovingly described scenery that still offers little relief from the inherently evil crimes committed, the gutting climactic showdown and the Biblical justice enacted in the end.

'Bad Blood'

By John Sandford Putnam, $27.95