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by J.A. Jance
William Morrow, September 2016
400 pages
ISBN: 0062297716

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Spoiler Alert! Skip the sentence that follows! In RANDOM ACTS, a novella-length prequel to the present work, Joanna's irritating mother and her husband have been murdered. Much of DOWNFALL's emotional burden concerns Joanna's coming to terms with being the daughter of a difficult woman who is no longer present. The murder mystery itself is a classic police procedural whose themes circle around love both sacred and profane, and the various means that people use to show the emotion that rules us all. The novel ends, as J.A. Jance's frequently do, with a chase after the murderer in which much is at stake.

Dramatis personae: Joanna Brady, sheriff of Cochise County, grieving the death of her mother, pregnant; Butch, her caring husband; Jenny, Joanna's daughter by her first husband, now attending college classes; Bob, Joanna's half-brother, who may have designs on Joanna's inheritance; the new chief deputy Tom Hadlock, whom Joanna suspects may be in over his head; Desiree Wilburton, microbiologist, deceased; Susan Marie Nelson, high school debate coach, likewise deceased; her husband, Rev. Drexel Nelson, whose church motto does not include the word "forgiveness," and who is delighted to be shut of his wife; his paramour, whom we sometimes meet in dishabille; Travis, a high-school-aged boy who has been sexually abused; his friend Kevin, ditto; Travis's father, Jeremy Stock, one of Joanna's deputies; Spike, who is a German Shepherd; Dave, Spike's handler and best bud.

Jance's novels often have a thematic unity. DOWNFALL looks, as hers often do, at what family members owe one another, and what constitutes “love.” DOWNFALL's bad guys are arrayed against the guys and gals in the white hats: the minister who is having sex with his ward versus Rev. Maculyea, who offers her care to those who are grieving and offers ways around social difficulties; the teacher who sexually abuses her students versus Butch, Joanna's husband, who cares for and mentors Joanna's children, both those he fathered and the one he did not; husbands and wives who kill each other, and those who do not, who work through their differences.

In the novel, the town's local height, Geronimo, has a secret: who would push two women from the top of Geronimo's rocky heights to their deaths? In the police procedural that follows, Joanna and her team follow cell telephone records to develop a list of contacts. Their hunt leads them to a connection between Reverend Nelson's Holy Redeemer Chapel and a local high school. The sheriff's team uses a mix of low- and high-tech methods to identify wrongdoers: looking at surveillance footage reveals a hooded figure leading one of the dead women across the school parking lot. DNA testing of an eraser in a schoolboy's locker reveals a surprising fact. Perhaps one message of this novel is that, high tech is a good adjunct to good old-fashioned discussion and brave confrontation of that which frightens us.

One of the things that frightens Joanna the most is perhaps dealing with the death of her mother. Her mother and her husband set up Joanna's almost unknown half-brother, Bob, as executor of the estate. One of the confrontations in this novel is Joanna's with unfinished business between her mother and herself, and with the possibility that her mother loved her half-brother more than she loved her daughter. These confrontations concerning love and grief parallel Joanna's and the bad guy's meetings—nearly fatal for one of them, and fatal for the other of them. The bad guy, too, is handling what one may call love, and what one may call grief.

§ Dr. C. Downs is professor of English at Texas A&M University-Kingsville and a fan, as well, of the well-turned whodunit.

Reviewed by Cathy Downs, January 2017

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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