In depth review and discussion of J. A. Jance
Publisher: William Morrow/HarperCollins. ISBN: 0-06-077603-X
Reviewed by Tim Davis, University of West Florida for New Mystery Reader
What can I tell you about Sentenced to Die, an omnibus collection of three J. A. Jance’s first three novels from the 1980s? Well, to begin at the very beginning—sort of—perhaps I ought to share the following with you:
Once upon a time in Bisbee, Arizona, a quiet second-grader named Judith began reading Wizard of Oz stories. Because of her reading adventures, she instantly knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, though she would later confess that it took her far too many years to get around to it. After finishing her elementary and high school education and earning college degrees in English and library science, Judith—having been told by a wise professor that she ought to be either a teacher or nurse as those were the only appropriate professions for women—went on to teach high school and to work as a school librarian.
Although she hadn’t forgotten the compelling influence of those Wizard of Oz books, Judith further postponed pursuing the occupation about which she had dreamed and instead went on to marry an aspiring writer who, as Judith later explained, never had anything published but instead spent most of his time merely imitating Faulkner and Hemingway by drinking too much alcohol. Still, Judith hadn’t gotten around to her dreams, but while the alcoholic husband slept—in the dark of the night because he did not approve of his wife’s ambitions to become a writer—Judith secretly wrote poetry.
Later, after the ill-fated and oppressive marriage of eighteen years had finally ended in divorce, and when she found herself to be a life insurance salesperson and a divorced mother of two children, Judith—finally acting upon her childhood resolution to become a writer—began pursuing her dream with a disciplined determination that all aspiring writers would admire. She would write between four a.m. and seven a.m. She would then set the writing aside, she would wake her children and send them to school, and she would go off into the business world to provide for her family by selling some more life insurance.
This impressive commitment to writing started in 1982. Now, with twenty-three years having elapsed since those uncertain beginnings, much has happened in Judith’s life. She began her apprenticeship as a would-be writer by producing a ponderous twelve hundred page tale of murders in Arizona that has never been published. Then, after some candid, career-saving advice from an agent, Judith turned her talents to writing a more focused, more polished novel. In 1985, her first novel, Until Proven Guilty, was published.
Also, in June of 1985, the week before her first novel was published and five years after her divorce, Judith met a man who would soon become her second husband. Judith’s two children and her new husband’s three children joined their parents into becoming a happy, not-quite-Brady Bunch family. Life for Judith was suddenly wonderful. She had realized her dream of becoming a writer, and she was happily married to a wonderfully supportive man.
Until Proven Guilty was the incredible beginning of a remarkable career. The novel marked the first appearance of J. P. Beaumont, a homicide detective with the Seattle Police Department who has since then gone on to appear in fifteen other J. (Judith) A. Jance novels. Jance has also written eleven other mysteries in a series featuring Sheriff Joanna Brady of Cochise County, Arizona; three thrillers (which Jance says should probably be rated R—as a warning to readers—though she rates her Beaumont and Brady mysteries as PG-13); and a collection of poetry (culled from those late night covert writing sessions years ago while her first husband slept).
Well, that just about covers the beginning and the background information. Now, on to the entertaining book we have before us, Sentenced to Die, which contains within its covers the first three J. P. Beaumont novels: Until Proven Guilty (1985); Injustice for All (1986); and Trial by Fury (1986).
In the well-received and fun-to-read debut 1985 novel, Until Proven Guilty, we meet Jonas Piedmont Beaumont, a fifteen year veteran of the Seattle police department’s homicide squad. We learn that Beaumont, “forty-two going on sixty,” has been divorced for five years, and that his wife now lives in California with their two children and her new husband. And we also learn that Beaumont’s friends call him Beau, that he hates newspapers but loves crossword puzzles, that he doesn’t like either baseball or television but he reluctantly keeps a 12 inch black-and-white set just to keep tabs on the messed-up media, that he drinks far too much MacNaughton’s Canadian whiskey, and that he eats at McDonald’s so frequently that the workers know him by his name and his routine order. And—because this is, after all, a mystery novel involving crimes and police procedures—we also learn how Beaumont handles a horrifying new case: In the opening moments of the book, the body of a murdered five year old girl is found in the blackberry brambles in a roadside gully, and the numerous suspects include the little girl’s family, people in the neighborhood, and members of a fanatical, fundamentalist congregation obsessed with their distorted interpretations of Biblical injunctions. As Beaumont investigates the brutal and senseless murder, he at the same time incredibly becomes romantically involved with Anne Corley, a beautiful though mysterious woman he meets at the murdered girl’s funeral. The further Beaumont gets into the case, the more complicated everything becomes: More people will die—which is, of course, good for any murder mystery worth its salt—and the clues will be harder to come by in the investigation; a surprising marriage of an unlikely couple threatens to complicate the investigation; and, when he gets too close to the truth about the murders, Beaumont may even have to forfeit his own life.
In the fascinating and complicated second Beaumont novel, Injustice for All, the Seattle cop now has twenty years of experience in the homicide division, and he still works with Detective Ron Peters as his partner. While on a brief vacation at the Rosario Resort on Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest, Beaumont—even though out of his jurisdiction—becomes involved in investigating the apparent homicide of a member of the state parole board. Before you can say “Jonas Piedmont Beaumont,” the author Jance’s detective is up to his neck in a case in which he travels throughout the State of Washington. But the case becomes, of course, quickly complicated by politicians—especially the candidate for lieutenant governor and the powerful family behind the candidacy—local law enforcement authorities, some of Beaumont’s former professional associates, and the unscrupulous newspaper reporter upon whom Beaumont unleashes his most ferocious and much deserved loathing, Maxwell Cole. The one bright, promising moment in this case for Beaumont is Ginger Watkins with whom he becomes quickly, enthusiastically, and passionately involved. However, as in Beaumont’s first case, things do not go smoothly: More people die under mysterious and brutal circumstances, his romantic relationship becomes complicated, and—yet again—Beaumont runs into serious problems that may cost him his own life.
Finally, in the exciting third novel, Trial by Fury, Beaumont and his homicide partner Ron Peters are back on the mean streets of Seattle as they investigate the strange case of a most curious murder. The body of a prominent and well-respected high school basketball coach is found in a dumpster behind a grocery store. The gruesome evidence suggests that the victim was tied up and then lynched. Beaumont quickly finds out that the cold trail of clues in the case is littered with an eclectic assortment of persons and objects: a terminally ill hospice patient, white supremacists, Girl Scout cookies, high school cheerleaders, a pregnant widow, morphine, a high school guidance counselor, blue paint, candid photographs of people in embarrassing circumstances, a high school sweetheart from long ago who won’t give up on the past, and names written inside a locker-room locker. These clues all ought to add up to a solution. But Beaumont can’t seem to figure out which are the few valid clues and which are the many red herrings. And—as the author Jance has done in her first two Beaumont novels—the detective’s progress toward a solution is further impeded by his love of MacNaughton’s Canadian whiskey, his personal problems, and bothersome characters who get in his way—especially his annoying nemesis, the newspaper reporter Maxwell Cole. Even worse, his progress is nearly terminated by lethal forces that threaten the lives of both Beaumont and his partner Ron Peters.
So, in conclusion, why should you bother reading novels now in 2005 that were first published more than two decades ago? It’s really quite simple: J. A. Jance fans already know that she is a very good writer of well-plotted mysteries populated with fascinating characters. Her books are, in the final analysis, simply fun to read. So, if you’re going to initiate yourself and dive into her Beaumont novels for the first time, you might as well start at the beginning and read them all in order. Even long time fans will enjoy going back to experience Beaumont’s beginnings. Readers who pick up a copy of Sentenced to Die will get to see how it all got started and learn about the ways in which Beaumont has changed and grown throughout his career. As J. A. Jance herself has said about the idea of reading her books from the first to the most recent, “Not that they have to be read that way, but it may be more fun.” And, by the way, while you’re at it, for more fascinating background information about the novels and the author’s life, check out the author’s website www.jajance.com (from which most of the material for the preliminary biographical section of this review was taken and which, of course, I must acknowledge).