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Trial by Fire by J.A. Jance

Those who have read my posts in either this blog or my MyBookDiscoveries blog know I am a huge J.A. Jance fan. Her writing is always so descriptive that you can picture every panoramic (usually) Arizona landscape. Her characters are so complex that you begin to think of them as friends. The plots are also usually complex.

Her latest, “Trial by Fire,” an Ali Reynolds mystery, fits the bill well. Ali has settled back in her home town of Sedona and now has her own house. The inheritance from her estranged spouse, Paul, is enough so that she does not have to worry about work anymore, and yet she’s taken on managing a scholarship program.

She receives a visit from the local sheriff with an invitation to become his new temporary public information officer and she accepts. Because she is not officially a cop she is kept away from situations where she might possibly need to use the concealed weapon the Sheriff knows Ali has– so she is sent to monitor the burn ward of a hospital to make sure the press stay clear of a victim. She figures out that the burn ward is exactly where the killer may head in order to finish off the victim, a 72 year old woman who was left to burn along with a reportedly valuable painting in the arson of a house in a new development.

By simply observing different family members of this burn victim and others that come and go over a two or three day period Jance and her character skillfully weave a story and eventually deduce what happened to this poor victim. They catch the killer in the end.

The most interesting character that Reynolds meets in the burn unit is Sister Anselm, the so-called “Angel of Death” who is often called to the bedside of critically injured patients to help administer pain medication and to reconcile the dying patients with family members who come visit. Because the Sister is often the last person to talk to a dying patient she becomes a perceived threat to the killer.

This is more of a think piece than an action piece as a Jance novel goes. I think giving the heroine time to deeply study prospective suspects as they come in and out of the burn unit is a refreshing change from the action-oriented plots of most of Jance’s novels. Don’t get me wrong– there’s still plenty of action– but it is interspersed in this book with a lot of thoughtful notes about the characters that visit the dying victim written by the news hound, Ali Reynolds. It turns out, police media work is the perfect job for this former TV reporter-anchor, and it looks like she’ll take on that role permanently for future books.

Liz Nichols

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