Familiar Territory

J.A. Jance welcomes readers back into Joanna Brady's comfortable (if violent) world

With a teenage daughter, an infant son, an erratic mother, a novel-writing husband, rental properties and a ranch house to attend to, you wouldn't think that Cochise County Sheriff Joanna Brady could have time to deal with the Buick that Thelma-and-Louises off a mountain pass, the trailer fire that burns up a guy in a wheelchair and the garbage bag that contains the remains of a plus-sized woman.

But Joanna manages both family and work ...and probably could do it smiling, backward, in heels and with holster. J.A. Jance lets her 21st-century hero do it all.

The publisher's blurbs on mystery-writer Jance--who grew up in Bisbee and now divides her time between Tucson and Seattle--always highlight the fact that she herself "did it all." She did her first writing while working full-time and raising a family, and she continues to churn out prodigious product. Damage Control is Jance's 13th Joanna Brady work, one of more than three dozen books she's written.

The prologue opens with a death seemingly unrelated to the rest of the story: A young Tucson woman has armed herself against an abusive boyfriend. When an intruder breaks into her house, the woman shoots to kill. She discovers she has killed a stranger--the "weapon" in his hand is the kitchen knife he had made a peanut-butter sandwich with--and she is mortified. Jance has introduced the theme of the sticky nature of the problems among our "nearest and dearest."

The first police-related action in the main book is the Buick sailing off the Huachuca Mountain pass. The driver is 89-year-old Alfred Bearsley; the passenger is his wife of nearly 70 years, Martha. They have just completed a midmorning picnic and had their photo taken by a woman who thought they were sweet. Jance's "en famille" theme begins to play out in the series of catfights between the Bearsleys' daughters, who haven't spoken to one another in 40 years.

The second investigation in 24 hours involves the rural trailer fire, in which a grandmother, two boys and a small dog escape, but the grandfather dies. The question of suicide is raised.

It's monsoon season in Southern Arizona, and even getting to and from Joanna's ranch home is dangerous when the washes are running. The baby has been looked after by her husband, Butch, but he's finished writing a book and needs to go on a book tour, so they're faced with child-care issues. And then there's Joanna's mother: They have always had a strained relationship, but suddenly she's playing the domestic diva in Joanna's house.

The themes Jance concerns herself with in Damage Control deal with levels of connectedness--with collaboration and cooperation, or, conversely, the refusal or inability to play nicely with others. And the professional mirrors the personal on those accounts.

In Joanna's case, they intertwine. At odds with her mother, Eleanor, since she was a rebellious teenager, Joanna resents Eleanor's disapproval of her career, and she harbors bitterness over her mother's apparent lack of emotion when Joanna's beloved father was killed. A sudden and uncharacteristic impulse on Eleanor's part to help out in Joanna's house both puzzles her and causes her to question her own value as a wife and mother. Concurrently, when Sheriff Joanna sees her department running smoothly without her direct input, she experiences moments of professional self-doubt. A rift between Eleanor and her second husband--coincidentally, Joanna's county medical examiner--threatens to complicate Joanna's work.

It's when Joanna accepts help --in child care, housework or her police work--that she attains a species of balance. And when she sees other women facing common challenges, she feels a kind of reassuring fellowship.

Damage Control is a fairly standard J.A. Jance book. The writing is clean and not self-conscious. The book is plot-driven. One wonders how realistic it would be for one rural county to experience five dead bodies (seven, actually, but we won't reveal the circumstances), two (or three) missing persons, two crazy women and a couple of hostage situations over a period of just a couple of days, but this is fiction, and the action will keep you reading.

While you don't go to this genre for fully developed, nuanced characters, you can develop affection for the protagonist in a series like the Joanna Brady books. Southern Arizonans can follow a smart but flawed character through a part of the world they know very well. You almost expect to run into Joanna at "your" El Con Home Depot. There's enjoyment to be had in that very familiarity.

That is, if you can handle over-the-cliff geriatric suicide.