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
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.