Diana Ladd is depressed. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author's publisher turned down her latest book, Do Not Go Softly, and wants to hire a ghost writer to rework it. With her career over and the continued health of her aging mind in doubt, she's considering driving her car off Gates Pass.
It could be Alzheimer's. Of late, long-dead men from her violent past have come to visit in a series of unsettling hallucinations. It's only a matter of time before she disappears forever into the gloom of dementia. Taking a cue, as she often does, from her beloved Tohono O'odham, she figures she'll spend the rest of her life making pots.
"Among the Desert People there came a time when old women were only good for making pots or baskets, and weaving baskets had never been Diana's long suit," J.A. Jance writes in her fourth thriller about Ladd and her husband, retired Pima County Sheriff Brandon Walker. Jance first introduced the pair in 1991's Hour of The Hunter, a book partly inspired by her own near run-in with a serial killer while teaching on the Tohono O'odham Nation. The latest in the series, Queen of the Night, out now from William Morrow, has an air of summation about it. Could this be the final chapter in the violent Walker family saga? (The other books in the series are 1999's Kiss of the Bees and 2004's Day of the Dead).
If it is, then the extended Walker clan is going out on a high note. Unlike Ladd, Jance is still in full command of her considerable narrative powers. In a series of increasingly suspenseful vignettes, Jance skillfully shifts the novel's point of view from Ladd to Walker, to their adoptive O'odham daughter Lani, to a half-Apache Iraq War veteran and Border Patrol agent, to an elderly Tucson couple still in the full flush of a late-life love affair, to a middle-aged victim of the Great Recession intent on killing the women he blames for his downfall.
As a series of related murders plays out in Thousand Oaks, Calif., and on the Tohono O'odham Nation, and Ladd struggles with her hallucinations and fears, Brandon Walker takes up what he thinks could be his last investigation for The Last Chance, a cold-case squad whose initial funding came from the mother of Ursula Brinker, an ASU coed murdered in 1959 in San Diego. Though TLC has had success with other unsolved cases, Brinker's murder remains unsolved, and Walker wants to wrap it up before an old friend who has been on the case since the beginning succumbs to cancer.
Hanging behind the novel's swift action, which, in true Jance style, makes for several enjoyable hours of obsessive page-turning, is the night-blooming cereus, the Queen of the Night of the title. Called ho'ok-wah'o, or "witches tongs," by the O'odham, the cereus shows its fragrant blooms only once a year, on a hot summer night in June or July. An O'odham story tells of the Old White-Haired Woman who travels far to the south to rescue her grandson from the Yaqui. When she returns, tired but successful, Elder Brother rewards her by turning her into the cereus.
"Because of your bravery, your feet will become roots," the god tells the old woman. "Your tired body will turn into branches. Each year, for one night only, you will become the most beautiful plant on earth."
Intricate, layered and wise, Jance's novel is more than a quick, entertaining read; it is a thoughtful rumination on age, death and the recession. You don't have to have read the other novels in the Walker saga to enjoy Queen of the Night, but it helps. Jance uses flashbacks and Ladd's hallucinations to cover those past crimes that always seem to be bleeding into the Walkers' present, but I recommend reading all of the Walker books—they are, in my view, Jance's finest work.
If there are moments in the series that stretch one's credulity to the snapping point, they are no worse than the usual hard-to-believe plot points that necessarily infect the entire genre. By that I mean that it is sometimes difficult to believe that one Southern Arizona family could experience so much violence. But if you are splitting those hairs, then you're not likely to suspend your precious disbelief long enough to accept that bodies and murder mysteries pile up annually in small towns across the world to the benefit of legions of literary sleuths. In which case you're a sad person stuck in a sad, boring reality, and you're certainly not worthy of J.A. Jance. To the rest of you I say go get Queen of the Night (and Jance's other Walker books), turn off your phone, and enjoy.