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Satisfying Suspense 

Yeah, J.A. Jance's latest is light--but it sure is good fun

You could wonder if J.A. Jance has a literary burr under her saddle when you read her latest "novel of suspense," if she isn't engaging in an off-the-typewriter dispute with someone about the literary merit of the murder mystery.

One of her sympathetic characters, Butch Dixon, is writing a mystery novel; one of her unsympathetic characters--his mother, Margaret Leona Dixon (from daughter-in-law Joanna Brady's perspective, "a ring-tailed bitch")--can't say enough bad about the genre.

"I belong to two book clubs," Margaret announces imperiously, "and we don't read mysteries. Ever. They're just too ... too ..."

Fun? thinks Joanna.

"... light."

Ouch.

In Dead Wrong, J.A. Jance's 32nd novel (including three stand-alone thrillers, 17 J.P. Beaumont books and 11 previous Joanna Brady books), Cochise County Sheriff Joanna is understaffed and over-stuffed. Homeland Security has swept her backup officers into the National Guard; both her office and the Border Patrol feel swamped by illegal crossers; and she is nine months pregnant. She's just trying to prepare her office for her maternity leave when a man turns up fingerless and dead.

Complications arise with the unexpected and unwelcome arrival of Joanna's in-laws. They park their RV in her front yard, point the TV antenna satellite-ward and upend Joanna's family. When a second major case (which involves the disappearance of one of Joanna's employees) appears, you know Joanna and her bump are going to be lumbering after bad guys right down to delivery time.

Jance is adept at intertwining the professional with the drama-rich personal, as her own life story is the stuff of fiction. Discouraged from writing because women were supposed to be teachers or nurses, married to an abusive alcoholic, the intended target of a serial killer, when she finally divorced, she had two children to raise alone. So she did her first writing between 4 and 7 a.m. while selling life insurance full-time.

Character Joanna has some history under her own belt. She was the daughter of cop-turned-sheriff D.H. Lathrop, and got pregnant when she was 17 and unmarried. First child Jenny is now 15. Subsequently, she married cop Andrew Roy Brady, and she ran an insurance office. Only weeks before Brady was to stand for Cochise County sheriff, he was gunned down and killed, and Joanna was sympathy-elected in his place. She's now re-elected and married to mystery writer Butch. If his parents constitute the in-laws from hell, as the narrator observes, Butch is the husband from heaven. He telephones. He gives great massages. He builds houses. He cooks.

Jance weighs in on gender roles in this book, and women don't always lead the equality charge. The controversial aspects of Joanna's non-traditional job are aggravated by her advanced pregnant state. Critics are as varied as her carping mother and a DPS investigator (when he questions a shooting report, she challenges him to outshoot her: moving targets, flat on their stomachs, with him balancing on a soccer ball). But neither is Joanna blameless in the discrimination department. She overlooks another woman for promotion because she's a single mother. A young woman reporter whom Joanna tries to dismiss uses a hunch ("female intuition" does get play here) that helps with an identification.

Most of the characters in Dead Wrong are fairly stock--standard police investigators, RV-ing in-laws with prejudices and a preference for Fox TV, and a sleazy Realtor-cum sleazier developer. They're in service to the action.

Jance takes good advantage of her Cochise County setting. A part-time resident of Bisbee, she writes convincingly of the area, having Joanna roam from Bisbee to Sierra Vista, Texas Canyon to Tucson, one historic ranch in the Whetstone Mountains to a disreputable one straddling the Arizona-New Mexico border. There's plenty of on-road and off-road territory to bounce over; the Mexican border offers its own issues; the landscape's replete with box canyons, deserted cabins and mountains for perps to hide out in.

In Dead Wrong, Jance effectively controls the reins of three plot divisions--the murder of the fingerless man, the attack on her employee (that the employee is the head of Animal Control adds an entertaining pit bull and python twist) and the impending birth of her baby. The reader is way ahead of Joanna on the ID of the dead man, but Jance sustains other suspense, and she accelerates the action to a satisfying conclusion.

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