Fans of mystery novelist J.A. Jance are awarded with consistency and constancy.
At her current pace, she's putting out two books a year and has a tidy stable of well-developed heroes and heroines. The Bisbee-raised, UA-educated Jance is now the author of 40 books, including the J.P. Beaumont series, the Joanna Brady series and several independent thrillers.
The flip side to her prolific output is that she's formulaic to the utmost, which can irritate those with highfalutin literary sensibilities. Her books are like pasta with marinara, reruns of Seinfeld and quick jogs in the local park—not fancy, not extraordinary, but always reliable and pleasurable.
In Trial by Fire, the fifth installment in the Ali Reynolds series, we're introduced once again to the gorgeous, 40-something former television-news reporter and blogger who may look like a vapid talking head, but who has a serious head for news—as well as a penchant for finding herself involved in violent situations. Things are quiet at the beginning of the book; Ali, living happily in her remodeled Sedona mansion (courtesy of a divorce settlement with her philandering media-exec ex-husband), is enjoying a simpler life close to both her son, Chris, and her parents, nosy-but-lovable cooks. Just as she's finally feeling settled in, she's approached by the local police department, which needs a media-relations professional. Ali takes the job.
Almost immediately, she's embroiled in a dark, shocking crime: A woman has been found in an empty house that has been set on fire. Not only is the blaze clearly arson; it is branded "ELF"—aka the Earth Liberation Front, a real-life band of eco-terrorists. The woman is rescued, barely alive and nearly unidentifiable, and transported to a Phoenix hospital. At moments, Jance switches to the suffering victim's perspective; she can't remember a thing, not even her own name. But she quickly becomes aware that she's being administered morphine and solace by an aging but tough nun, Sister Anselm—called the "Angel of Death" by the local press, because she's called in to care for unidentified patients who will almost certainly die.
Ali spends some time deflecting the media at the crime scene, but quickly finds herself at the hospital, where she befriends Sister Anselm and assists her in trying to find out the woman's identity. Ali begins investigating the crime, triangulating what she knows from the hospital, the police department and a hacker friend who also happens to be an attractive love interest.
Once the woman's identity is known, Ali begins to realize that there are a lot of motives to kill the poor woman—most especially her fortune, left behind by her art-dealer ex-husband, and a painting that's ripe for the market. Unfortunately, as Ali and Sister Anselm get closer to the mystery, they become targets themselves.
Ali is an immensely relatable character—divorced, a bit irritated with her overbearing parents, concerned about her son's personal life, and slightly unsure if she should be getting involved with a younger man. But she's still sassy and tough, and it's easy to picture her in her pink track suit, Glock tucked into her waistband, pursuing a hardened criminal through the overheated desert. A lesser woman would be scarred by her many traumas, but not Ali, who has channeled her own experience with abuse into a serious passion for justice—even when that means bending the rules a bit.
This is the Jance formula: set the scene; quickly explain the backstory; introduce a few shallow but relatable foils (including a love interest); propel relentlessly to the exciting but quick climax; and hint at what might come next. Jance is an expert at pacing and at appealing to the everyman in all of us. More importantly, she doesn't demand too much of her readers; you do not need to have read the other Ali Reynolds books (which, for those intrigued, are Edge of Evil, Web of Evil, Hand of Evil and Cruel Intent) to understand what's going on in Trial by Fire.
Yes, all of this is backhanded praise. The thing is, writing like Jance does is tougher than it looks, of course, or everyone would be following Jance's formula and selling millions of mystery novels. It may be a formula, but it's hers, and legions of readers are downing it again and again.