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Cactus Spine-Tingler 

Outlaw Mountain, by J.A. Jance (Avon). Cloth, $24.

MUSICAL LEGEND VAN Morrison once gave an up-and-coming band this advice: Find a core audience and work to please them. If your fame spirals outward, fine; if not, you'll always have your core. Author J.A. Jance has followed this advice to the tee, as witnessed by the growing success of her Joanna Brady series.

Brady is the elected sheriff of Cochise County. She's a 30-year-old widow who has to balance her official duties with the everyday problems of dealing with a nagging mother, an increasingly independent daughter, annoying personnel matters, and far too many would-be suitors, both inside the department and out.

In Outlaw Mountain, the seventh book in the Brady series, the mother of the newly elected mayor of Tombstone has been found, murdered, not long after leaving a dinner party at her daughter's house in Sierra Vista. The blustery mayor wants action taken immediately, as does his equally pushy sister, who's married to the county's biggest car dealer. The problem is, the body has been impaled on a cactus off Houghton Road in Pima County, so it's probably not even Brady's jurisdiction.

Living in and working out of the Cochise County seat of Bisbee (where, by the wildest of coincidences, author Jance grew up), Brady sets out to solve the crime, carefully sorting through the numerous suspects, all the while being buffeted by shifting political and social winds.

Along the way, author Jance manages to throw in adulterous land developers, crooked county supervisors, and even some mercenary monkey-wrenchers. As readers, we gladly tag along with Sheriff Brady as she criss-crosses the county, from the tiny Catholic monastery in otherwise-Mormon St. David, to the funeral home in Douglas and on to booming Sierra Vista.

The mystery is fairly generic, solved partly through attrition as would-be suspects start piling up in the victim count. But it's a fun read -- an airplane book that will leave the reader satisfied, if not exactly challenged.

I look forward to the next book from Jance, in which, just maybe, the eminently likable Sheriff Brady can tackle the biggest mystery of all: Why in the world is Bisbee still the seat of Cochise County?

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