Cast of Characters

Though weighed down by references to previous stories, J.A. Jance's latest is a smooth, gripping novel

A young woman is wrapped in a tarp, bludgeoned and set on fire in the middle of the woods in Washington state.

Hundreds of miles away, J.P. Beaumont is whirling on the teacups with his granddaughter at Disneyland. Beaumont, a hardliner cop and a former alcoholic, is getting older. He's happy with his new wife, Mel, and the millions he inherited from his second wife. But despite his newfound health and comfort, he won't shake his tremendous affection for police work.

He is once again the star of a J.A. Jance novel, Fire and Ice, a role he's held since 1985, through 19 books. And once again, he's crossing paths with Jance's other superstar, Arizona sheriff Joanna Brady, herself the lead character of 13 novels.

Hundreds of miles away from the unfortunate, tarp-wrapped girl, an ATV enthusiast finds the body of an elderly groundskeeper, and Brady is called to the scene to investigate. Meanwhile, Beaumont, a proud member of SHIT (the Special Homicide Investigation Team), is investigating a series of gruesome homicides of young women—all of whom were wrapped in tarps and set on fire. But this time, the young woman still had her teeth—it seems her killer couldn't bring himself to do the dirty work of pulling them out—so they are able, after some stomach-churning autopsy work, to identify her. They find that she was a reported missing person, the wife of a murdered convict, and the mother of a teenager who just so happens to be a close relative of one of Joanna Brady's friends and colleagues. This means, ultimately, that there will be a reunion for Brady and Beaumont. The two, who had a brief flirtation in Partner in Crime, don't end up spending much time together, but the branches of these elaborate crimes manage to spread themselves from Tucson to Washington and back, making for a gripping and often suspenseful read.

Jance, who splits her own time between Tucson and Seattle, has always been a master of character. From the subtlest detail—like Joanna finding a patch of gray hair and deciding it's more of a badge of honor than a hallmark of old age, to Beaumont's decision to go on those whirling teacups even though he knows it will make him sick—she manages to reveal volumes through her characters' words and actions, rather than deliberate description.

Jance also has a good eye for gender issues in law enforcement. Brady still struggles to be taken seriously by her male colleagues at times, and more than feels the strain of working long days when she has a young child and a husband at home. Beaumont, for his part, has no problem partnering up with his wisecracking wife, Mel, also a homicide detective, who often plays good cop to his bad cop—or vice versa. And despite her often-dismal subject matter (Fire and Ice spends a brief time dealing with bedsores and elder abuse), Jance somehow manages to keep her books light and even funny. She doesn't indulge in shock tactics to keep her readers attentive; rather, she relies on her eclectic and amusing cast of characters, who range from the classic wizened detectives to lighthearted up-and-comers to the random off-the wall interloper, like the prostitute-turned-millionaire Mama Rose.

Fire and Ice is probably not the best book to start with if you're a new Jance reader. The book's main deficit is the magnitude of the collection to which it belongs: Predictably, Jance needs to spend a lot of time recapping; it can seem as though that's all she does for the first 100 pages. This may seem like a convenience, but most of the information clutters the narrative, only to be forgotten in the action moments later. The series' depth is part of Jance's appeal, of course, and her devoted readers will appreciate the references to the people and places of books past, but the fact of the matter is that it slows down the pacing. The book already has a confusing plot, and throwing in dozens of extra characters makes for a lot of backward page-flipping.

Even so, the book ends up being a surprisingly easy jaunt, helped along by Jance's smooth writing style. Though you may want to pick up a few of Jance's oldies first, Fire and Ice is perfect for the poolside or the treadmill. As a matter of fact, Jance—and her charismatic creations Beaumont and Brady—could help you train for a marathon.