The A List, by J.A. Jance*****

Best-selling author J.A. Jance is something of a legend here in Seattle, and I came to her work as a huge fan of the J.P. Beaumont series. It took me awhile to bond to the Ali Reynolds series—which is set in Not-Seattle– but I am all in it now.  Big thanks go to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the review copy.

Our story commences inside a prison where a killer is spending what’s left of his life and plotting vengeance. On his arm are tattooed 5 initials which comprise his “A list” for the five people he wants dead. He understands he’ll have to hire out the “wet work,” but that’s okay. The voice Jance gives this character sends chills up and down my neck, and I don’t get that way easily. We learn that Ali, our protagonist, is on that list.

Once the reader’s attention is secure, we go through a complex but clear and necessary recap, which gets us through the essential information that’s developed during the first 13 books of the series, which is set in Arizona. So here, I have to tell you that I don’t recommend starting the series with this book. I have read all or most of the series, but with a year or so passing between each of these, I very much needed this recap to refresh my memory. Young readers with sterling memories might be able to keep up with it, but the audience that will love this story best are middle class Caucasian women over 40. The reader doesn’t necessarily have to go all the way back to the first book to begin reading, but I would urge you to go back to an earlier book somewhere else in the series and work your way forward. The books fly by quickly, and it’s definitely worth it. While some authors lose the urgency in their prose when they get older, Jance just gets leaner and sharper, and this story is among the very best I’ve seen her write, which says a lot.

The premise is centered around The Progeny Project, a nonprofit organization that helps children born through artificial insemination find their biological relatives for the purpose of learning about their own medical background. It begins when one such young man, in desperate need of a new kidney, makes a public plea for information on Ali’s television news program. Results come in quickly and reveal that Dr. Eddie Gilchrist’s fertility clinic did not use the donors he advertised, instead inseminating his many female patients with his own sperm. Events unfold, and the doctor is convicted of murder, and is sent away for life in prison. From there, he seeks revenge.

The plot is among the most original I have seen in many years, and its execution requires tight organization, which Jance carries off brilliantly. She could have written this mystery successfully without lending a lot of attention to the characters, but she doesn’t do that. It’s the combination of an intricate but clear plot and resonant characters that makes this story exceptional.

In an earlier book we were introduced to Frigg, an AI entity created by an IT guy that works for an internet security company owned by B. Simpson, Ali’s husband. Frigg disregards what she considers to be unreasonable laws against hacking, and attempts to take Frigg down completely have been foiled by the AI herself. This scenario creates all sorts of vastly amusing problems when Ali herself needs personal security; Frigg learns she is on the A List, and her vigilance is both essential and illegal, at times.

The second and most fascinating character is Hannah Gilchrist, the elderly, very wealthy mother of Dr. Eddie. When she learns that her only son has decided to have everyone responsible for his ruin killed, she decides she’s going to help him. She has terminal cancer and no other children, and a sort of modern, rich Ma Barker personality emerges. Hannah is a dynamic character and I absolutely love the way Jance develops her, laying waste to a multitude of sexist stereotypes.

If I could change one thing, I would have Jance lose the word “gangbanger,” a stereotype in itself, and include some positive Latino characters in the Reynolds series.

Make no mistake, this mystery is brainy and complicated. You don’t want to read it after you have taken your sleeping pill. But the masterful way Jance braids the plot, the return of Frigg, and the development of Hannah all make it well worth the reader’s effort. But again—don’t let this be the first of the series for you. Climb aboard an earlier entry and work your way into it. In fact, newbie readers will likely have an advantage over long time readers, because you can read these mysteries in succession without having to wait a year to come back to the series.

With that caveat, this mystery is highly recommended.

Duel to the Death, by J.A. Jance***

DuelofDeathJance is one of my favorite hometown writers, author of the J.P. Beaumont series and other books, and so I was pleased to see this title offered on Net Galley. Thanks go to that site and Touchstone for the free review copy.  It’s for sale now.

This is the 13th entry in the Ali Reynolds series, and its constant readers will likely want to read this one also. New readers may be a harder sell. Although the novel has some bright spots, it’s slow to wake up and burdened with a number of issues, some of which are deal-breakers.

The opening is slow, and there is a great deal of back story that slows down the inner narrative. If I hadn’t taken a review copy from Simon and Schuster, I would have tossed the book on my giveaway pile and called it quits. But staying with it has its rewards. Though Reynolds is featured in this story and it is set in her home and within the cybersecurity firm she and her husband own, the most important characters here are Stuart, her technical wizard, and the surprisingly charming Artificial Intelligence entity named Frigg that bonds to him. Graciella Miramar, a talented Panamanian hacker and the daughter of a drug lord, is determined to hack into Frigg in order to get the password that serves as the key to a vast fortune in Bitcoins.

I am nearly halfway into the book before I am engaged, but once I am hooked I am in it for keeps.

The immense amount of money Reynolds and  her husband toss around  prevents me from empathizing with them.  A large amount of independent wealth solves a lot of logistical problems for the novelist,  just as it does for the affluent in real life, but Jance is a seasoned writer, and I am disappointed that she takes the easy way out. In addition, the denouement—not given away here lest you decide to read it anyway—strains credibility.

All of the bad guys—we have one female villain, Graciella, and a whole list of her family members and associates—are Latino. All the Latinos, apart from the Reynolds’ domestic employee, are bad people. All the good guys are Caucasian except for Cami, who is Asian-American.  I am disquieted by the portrayal of at least a dozen immigrant characters as “gangbangers”, thieves, rapists, arsonists, and murderers. Particularly given current events and attacks on immigrants’ rights by the U.S. government, this is disturbing.

So if you are a reader who is heartily sick of fiction that wants to appear politically correct, congratulations. Here’s your book; knock yourself out. Everyone else is forewarned.