Familiar Guilt

J.P. Beaumont returns in a new detective caper from J.A. Jance

Characters in a series can feel a lot like family. You know to expect their warts and idiosyncrasies; you can pull on sweats and put your feet on the couch when you get together.

J.A. Jance's J.P. Beaumont returns in this new detective novel, and--20 years after his first appearance in Until Proven Guilty--he feels avuncular and familiar enough to flop on a couch next to.

Jance, who divides her time between Tucson and Seattle, is familiar and comfortable to Tucsonans. While her 16 Beaumont novels are set in Seattle, she's featured Southern Arizona in her 10 Sheriff Joanna Brady mysteries, and our local institution of higher learning granted her an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2000. Said to draw from her own experiences for her novels (reared in Bisbee, with several years' living and teaching on the Tohono O'Odham reservation, where she and her husband were targeted by a serial killer), she can serve up home-grown details.

J. P. Beaumont's territory is set in Jance's other home, however.

After a prologue in the voice of a young child, Long Time Gone opens with Beaumont returning to Seattle from a family wedding in Hawaii (it's his son Scott's, by the way; Beaumont and his ex-wife's widower, Dave, are co-fathers of the groom. The rest of the book is not as you-had-to-be-there as this. And that's about all you get of Beaumont's kids.)

Retired from the Seattle Police Department, but now working as an investigator in a small unit for the state attorney general's office--the Special Homicide Investigation team, known as the SHIT squad--Beaumont is yanked by someone's pulled strings into a repressed memory case. A middle-aged nun, Sister Mary Katherine, had been referred to a hypnotherapist to deal with inexplicable night-screaming. In a series of videotaped sessions under hypnosis, she describes a scene in which a man and a woman stab to death another woman. Where, or why, or who these people are--or if the murder did, in fact, occur--are up to Beaumont to uncover.

Meanwhile, a former police partner of Beaumont's, Ron Peters, is heading up a hill of trouble. After hearing that his once druggy, now religious-culty, ex-wife, Rosemary, was suing for child custody, Ron pitched a fit, jumped into his (handi-)car--Ron's a paraplegic--and rushed to Tacoma to confront her. Now, Rosemary's turned up dead, and Ron's the logical suspect.

Due to a recent cop domestic-abuse scandal, any incident that might smack of police family malfeasance is referred to internal affairs. That'd be the SHIT unit. The unit is small--only four investigators--and obviously, Beaumont would have a conflict of interest, so the case is assigned to Melissa ("Mel") Soames. Given Beaumont's attachment to Ron's family (he's "Uncle Beau" to Ron's three children), and his casual respect for protocol, his behavior is bound to collide with Mel's investigation. That she's unmarried and attractive only complicates the collision.

Jance has set up two story lines. She manages to pace them complementarily but not artificially, and avoid one stomping on the other. The story lines are tight and nicely intertwined, and--even if they're somewhat predictable (one late plot twist is the exception)--they make for enjoyable reading.

Jonas Piedmont Beaumont isn't your noir or quick-fisted detective. A little reflective, burned by experience, he has a bit of a sensitive approach to life. A drunk now sober, he carries with him a recovering alcoholic's sensibilities of regret and insight. Had Beaumont been created by a male writer, he might have seemed more testosterone-edgy and less given to speculating about relationships (or noticing a character's "dove-gray suit"), but that's minor carping.

Long Time Gone is not an "idea" novel in any sense, but Jance does draw through it a theme of guilt that rounds out the character. In his ruminations, Beaumont plays "could-have/should-have" in relation to his past--the domestic-violence death of former partner Sue (he could have arrived earlier, should have anticipated her husband's actions), the suicide-by-cop of his fiancée on their wedding day (he should have recognized signs). Sister Mary Katherine beats herself up for not reporting a murder she witnessed at 5. And the guilt theme is underscored by its absence with Beaumont's caricatured nemesis, Captain Paul Kramer, who slimed his way up the departmental ladder by not accepting blame or responsibility for any case gone unsolved or awry.

In Long Time Gone, J.P. Beaumont is back, and his fans should be pleased. From suggestions made in the final few pages, he may be around for a while ... and perhaps not alone.

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