Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. J.A. Jance has created some very successful series, and is well regarded, both commercially and critically. It’s about time this feature included one of her novels, so let’s do that today. Let’s turn the spotlight on Desert Heat, the first of her Joanna Brady novels.
The story begins with a prologue that takes place in Phoenix and in the desert of Northern Mexico. A gangster named Antonio Vargas kills a man named Lefty O’Toole. Readers aren’t exactly privy to why yet, but that incident becomes part of the story later.
Then, the story moves to Bisbee, Arizona, where Joanna Brady is waiting for her husband, Andy, to come home from work He’s a deputy sheriff for Cochise County, so sometimes, his schedule is erratic. But he’s asked her to be ready at six for a tenth-anniversary celebration. When it gets later and later, and Andy still hasn’t come home, Joanna goes looking for him. Tragically, she finds him shot and near death. She calls for help and Andy is rushed to a Tucson hospital. Sheriff Walter McFadden takes charge of the investigation.
Andy dies of his wounds, and the evidence that the police turn up points to suicide. But Joanna is convinced that’s not true. He hasn’t seemed upset or depressed, and besides, why would he plan an anniversary surprise for his wife, and then kill himself? Something is wrong, and Joanna is determined to find out what it is.
But right away, she runs into difficulty. For one thing, there are plenty of people who think her husband committed suicide, and that’s hard enough to take. For another, as the police continue to look into the case, they find evidence that Andy might have been involved in some illegal activity. And some of it is hard to refute. If he ‘went dirty,’ that might be a motive to kill himself. And it doesn’t help matters that the FBI is interested in this case. The more evidence turns up, the more inconsistent it is with the Andy that Joanna’s always known. Now, she has to decide which is the real Andy, and whether he was somehow framed, if that’s the word. And to do that, she’s going to have to find out the truth about his death.
There are plenty of people who want this case buried, but Joanna refuses to give up. And, in the end, she discovers the truth about Andy and about his death, and how that death links up to O’Toole’s. In doing so, she uncovers some ugly things that are going on in Cochise County. And she makes some major decisions about her own life.
One of the important elements in this novel is its setting. Bisbee is the sort of place where people know each other. Most people in town liked Andy, and don’t want to believe that he was involved in anything illegal. And yet, the evidence seems to be there. This impacts the way they see Joanna and Andy, and it’s hard on her, and on their nine-year-old daughter, Jennifer. Jance also shares the physical and cultural setting with readers. This novel is distinctly ‘Arizona.’
Another element in the novel is the impact of Andy’s death on Joanna, Jennifer, and the people who were Andy’s friends. Everyone is hit hard, and many people want to help Joanna and Jennifer, but don’t know exactly how to do it. Because many parts of the novel are told from Joanna’s perspective (third person, past tense), we also see how becoming a widow affects her.
Joanna is, of course, devastated. But she is also the daughter of a former sheriff, so this isn’t something she’s never imagined could happen. She is determined to be strong, mostly for Jennifer’s sake. Her life and Jennifer’s have to go on. And she is even more determined to clear Andy’s name, so that his good reputation will be preserved.
As I say, many parts of the story are told from Joanna’s point of view. Other parts are told from the point of view of Antonio Vargas and his girlfriend, Angie Kellogg. Readers who like only one perspective in their novels will notice this. To me, at least, it’s always clear whose point of view is being shared.
These different perspectives mean that readers know the truth about some parts of the mystery before Joanna does. In that sense, it’s not exactly a whodunit. At the same time, there are some twists in the story, so that the complete truth isn’t revealed until close to the end.
The novel is a little too gritty to be a ‘cosy.’ That said, though, the violence is mostly ‘off stage,’ and it’s not gruesome. Readers who dislike gore in their novels will appreciate that. Some of the language is quite explicit, and readers who don’t care for profanity will notice that. But it doesn’t pepper every page.
Desert Heat is the story of a ‘regular’ woman suddenly torn from a ‘regular’ life into widowhood and the search for a killer. It takes place in a distinctive rural Arizona setting, and features characters who are woven into that context. But what’s your view? Have you read Desert Heat? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 12 November/Tuesday, 13 November – The Murder of My Aunt – Richard Hull
Monday, 19 November/Tuesday, 20 November – The Murder Wall – Mari Hannah
Monday, 26 November/Tuesday, 27 November – Rumpole of the Old Bailey – John Mortimer