Category Archives: J.A. Jance

In The Spotlight: J.A. Jance’s Desert Heat

Hello, All,

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

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Filed under Desert Heat, J.A. Jance

The Archetypal Man*

Over the years, there’ve been some interesting character types that have become an integral part of crime fiction. They’re almost mythical, in a way, because we know the reality is a lot more complex than the myth. It’s a bit like the myth vs the reality of the famous shootout at the OK Corral. And, yet, those mythical characters can add to a story. And they’ve helped shape our perception of crime-fictional characters.

One mythical sort of character is the crusading lawyer personified in Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. On television, Mason was, of course, portrayed by Raymond Burr. This character fights for the defendant, comes up with all sorts of strategies, surprise witnesses, and so on, and works to get justice for the client. The reality is, of course, much more complex than what was presented in the TV series, especially. And modern crime-fictional attorneys show that complexity. Most attorneys (both in real life and in crime fiction) do want to do their jobs well. They want to win their cases, and they do try to do so in an ethical way. But sometimes, their clients are guilty. Sometimes, they do things that aren’t exactly above-board, so to speak. And they don’t always win their cases. But many people still want to believe in the Perry Mason type of attorney.

Another interesting archetypal character is the PI personified by Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He’s a loner, somewhat cynical, but still idealistic enough to want to do the right thing. He doesn’t let people get the better of him and stays just aloof enough not to get too personally entangled in a case, even if a ‘bombshell’ femme fatale tempts him. There are plenty of fictional PIs like that, of course. I’m sure you could name as many as I could. Crime fiction fans know, though, that PIs and the PI life are a lot more complex. For one thing, PIs come in lots of different shapes and sizes, so to speak. They do want to do their jobs well, by and large, but not all of them are fierce crusaders for justice. Some PIs are, indeed, susceptible to temptation. Some are extremely cynical, with their only focus on their fees, and so on. Crime fiction shows us this complexity, and most readers want that. At the same time, though, when we think of the PI, lots of us think of that Sam Spade archetype.

There’s also the mythical figure of the sheriff, especially in US western novels. You know the type, I’m sure: fighting for justice, facing off against a gang of ‘bad guys,’ and so on. If you’ve read novels by J.A. Jance, Craig Johnson, or Bill Crider (to name only three), you know that there’s more to being a sheriff than is portrayed in television and film westerns. And today’s sheriff characters are more complex. They’re not all male, they’re not all white, and their cases aren’t all clear-cut. Fictional sheriffs are often faced with ‘bad guys’ that aren’t so easy to spot, and aren’t always simplistic. Most sheriffs try to uphold the law in the best way they can, and they all do it a little differently. And, yet, despite these shades of differences, we still have a mental image of the sheriff as the lone force of good against the evil [Name of Gang] Boys.

There’s also the mythical loner/drifter who comes into town and ends up righting wrongs. I’m thinking, for instance, of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. This sort of character’s appeal arguably comes in part from being somewhat mysterious. We don’t ever really know everything about that person. But we do know that the ‘stranger in town’ is ultimately on the side of the angels. Of course, loners/drifters are more complex than it seems on the surface (we see that, actually, as the Jack Reacher series evolves). But there’s just something about the ‘stranger in town who ends up saving everything’ that appeals.

There are other mythical/archetypal characters, too, in crime fiction. But one character who isn’t enshrined in this way is the police detective. If you think about it, crime fiction includes a wide, wide array of police characters. There are bumbling cops (e.g. the way Arthur Conan Doyle portrayed police), dedicated detectives (like Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp), and ‘everyman’ police officers (e.g. Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police). And not all of the police characters are depicted as sympathetic, either. From James Ellroy’s Los Angeles trilogy to Garry Disher’s Bitter Wash Road and plenty in between, there are ‘bent’ police officers, too. Perhaps the reason there may not be an archetypal police character is exactly that there’s this much variety.

A mythical/archetypal character can be limiting. It’s taken several decades, for instance, for fictional PIs to include women, non-whites, LGBTQ+ characters, and so on. And there may not be as much room for depths and layers to a mythical character as there is to a different sort of character. But they serve an important purpose. They give us a mental image of a lawyer, or a PI, or….  And they have some interesting qualities that can add to a story.

What’s your view? Do you think of those mythical characters (like Sam Spade or Perry Mason) when you think of a crime-fictional PI or lawyer? If you’re a writer, do you get inspired by those characters?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Judee Sill.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Crider, Craig Johnson, Dashiell Hammett, Ed McBain, Erle Stanley Gardner, Garry Disher, J.A. Jance, James Ellroy, Lee Child