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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

J.A. Jance

At a glance
Trial By Fury
by J.A. Jance

Avon
384 pages, $7.99
paperback

There's always something comforting about reading books that are set in familiar places.

Even when those books deal with such ugly themes as murder.

Check that. Maybe especially when those books deal with murder just as most of J.A. Jance's novels do.

Jance, for those of you who don't follow mystery fiction, is the author of at latest count 31 mystery novels. The majority are made up of two separate series: one featuring Seattle homicide cop J.P. Beaumont, the other Cochise County, Ariz., Sheriff Joanna Brady.

It is the first series, the one set in Seattle, that is the subject here. Because the third book in that series, which has Beaumont investigating the death of a high-school basketball coach, is the May/June read for The Spokesman-Review Book Club.

"Trial By Fury" was originally published in 1986. As a measure of just how popular Jance is, it and her two first novels have just been reprinted in hardback under the title "Sentenced to Die" (Morrow, 645 pages, $21.95).

Jance's first books were published in original paperback editions. As she explains on her Web site, www.jajance.com, "Several people told me that original paperback mysteries had a shelf-life of 90 days and that continuing to write them really wasn't worth the effort."

One literary agent even advised her, Jance says, "to get away from those 'two book original paperback contracts' and go to where the 'real money' is" to a publishing house that would release her books in hardback.

"I decided to stay put, and guess what, folks?" Jance says. "It's 20 years later and those little 90-day wonders (ALL OF THEM!!!) are still in print and are, in fact, being reprinted in hardback. I'm smiling all the way to the bank."

Jance's story is one that would make almost any writer put that unfinished novel back in the kitchen drawer.

A native of Bisbee, Ariz., she was the first member of her family to attend a four-year college. She graduated from the University of Arizona in 1966, but along the way she was denied admission to a creative writing course because, she says, the professor "thought girls 'ought to be teachers or nurses' rather than writers."

Her first husband, who had been admitted into the writing program, went on to imitate Hemingway and Faulkner, she says, "primarily by drinking too much and writing too little."

The next few years saw Jance writing poetry at night when the rest of her family was asleep, raising her children and trying to hold her marriage together by day.

By the late '70s she was "a single, divorced mother with two children and no child support." She sold life insurance to pay the bills but never gave up on her desire to write: Her first three books were, she says, written between 4 and 7 a.m.

But it wasn't until she had been given some direction by an agent that she turned to fiction, specifically to the character of Beaumont. The result was 1985's "Until Proven Guilty." "In Justice for All" and "Trial By Fury" came out the next year.

"Trial By Fury" stands out because it focuses on Beaumont and his partner, Ron Peters, discovering almost immediately that the basketball coach a black man named Darwin Ridley has been lynched. There's every indication that the murder is a hate crime. But is it?

Ridley is a black man coaching at affluent, mostly white Mercer Island High School, so race would seem an obvious answer especially give the manner in which the murder took place. And as any Shadle Park High School hoops fan knows, they take their basketball seriously on Mercer Island. (Shadle defeated Mercer Island in a bitterly disputed AAA state basketball championship in 1981.)

Yet as Beaumont and Peters look further into the crime, the mystery deepens. Extramarital affairs, threats, strange men having been seen talking to the dead man just before his death, a wife who has no alibi it all adds up to questions that aren't answered until the final chapters.

If that's all there were to the story, then Jance might not deserve more mention. But she imbues her books with social commentary, especially involving alcoholics (Beaumont is one), infidelity, domestic violence and the omnipresent specter of sexism.

True, Jance has her detractors. But her fans don't care. And, as the years have passed, the good reviews have piled up.

Of her latest Brady novel, "Exit Wounds," Library Journal said: "Fans anxiously awaiting Jance's 10th outing in her Joanna Brady series will not be disappointed. ... Jance expertly weaves plot and family saga to produce another first-rate page-turner."

Of Jance's 2000 Beaumont novel "Breach of Duty," a reviewer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote: "As always, Jance paints a vibrant picture, creating characters so real you want to reach out and hug or strangle them. The dialogue rings true, and the cases unravel in an interesting, yet never contrived way."

But the most famous quote of all concerning Jance came years ago from the Seattle Times: "San Francisco has Dashiell Hammett, Boston has Robert B. Parker, Fort Lauderdale boasts John D. MacDonald ... Seattle has J.A. Jance."

Seattle? That's that rainy place due west of here, right?

Sounds familiar.

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