Breach of Duty

by J.A. Jance

Published by Avon Books

343 pages, 1999

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Murder in the Hood

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


J.A. Jance has the talent -- essential to great mystery writing -- for teasing you with the ho-hum and then suddenly transforming it into the horrific. In their best moments, her Seattle stories will snap you to attention like a smack of spray over the railings of a Puget Sound ferry, or the sound of glass cracking underfoot at night in an alley off the city's historic Pioneer Square district.

Jance's latest, Breach of Duty, is the 14th in her series about Seattle police detective J.P. Beaumont, who last appeared in Name Withheld (1996). Breach of Duty opens in one of central Washington state's most scenic spots -- the tiny town of Stehekin, at the remote northern tip of Lake Chelan, where Beau has gone to cast his grandfather's ashes over the lake's "slate-gray depths." It ends with a fatal shootout in one of Seattle's old hippie enclaves, the Fremont neighborhood. In between, Jance treats us to blackmail near the Highlands (a harbor of discreet old money), homicide in Bellevue (synonymous with pretentious new money), and death-by-arson in the little community of Bitter Lake, just north of Seattle, where the tiny former summer cottages and their lots are so modest that "even in the current world of greedy real estate, developers would be hard-pressed to knock one down and put a megahouse/no-lot dwelling in its place."

Of all the authors who have chosen to set their stories in the misty environs of Seattle, none captures the Emerald City as well as Jance does. She knows the city's quirky environs, and makes full use of them as backdrops for murder and mayhem.

Breach of Duty has Beau and his new partner, Sue Danielson, investigating two cases, each with distinctive Northwest characteristics. In the first, Agnes Ferman, a crabby widow who knew the secrets of the wealthy family she once kept house for, burns to death in her rundown Bitter Lake cottage. Cigarette smoking in bed seems the cause -- until investigators find traces of gasoline, as well as more than $300,000 stashed in an old refrigerator in Ferman's garage. No one has much nice to say about Ferman, except her elderly neighbor, Malcolm, who tells Beau:

"Alice loved books, too, especially murder mysteries. Read stacks of them. She'd bring 'em home from the library half a dozen at a time. In fact, she told me once that she was thinking about writing one herself sometime. But now, of course, she's dead and the same thing's happened to her. Murder, that is."

I glanced at Sue. I hadn't mentioned the word murder and neither had she.

The second case involves a group of overpaid, undersocialized computer geeks playing fantasy games in a city park. Their props include human remains -- what turn out to be the bones of a Native American shaman, possibly stolen from a sacred Quinault burial ground. Beau is skeptical when a professor from the University of Washington warns him that the bones may be cursed; but is it a coincidence that several of the people who have come in contact with the skeleton meet unpleasant ends?

To her credit, Jance plays lightly on the Native American theme, weaving it deftly among several others in this lively and diverting story.

Jance has a well-deserved reputation for writing blue-collar police procedurals that are rich in setting, long on plot, and populated with characters readers care about. Breach of Duty is no exception. Beau, twice divorced and a recovering alcoholic, is an older-but-wiser tough guy. His engaging curiosity and street smarts make you glad you're along for the ride as he interviews a range of colorful characters, counsels his partner about dealing with the reappearance of her abusive ex-husband, and ignores the bureaucratic directives of an ass-kissing colleague who has been promoted to head the Seattle detectives squad. However, if you're looking for subtlety and poetry in your crime fiction, the Beaumont series is not the place to get it. Jance's writing goes flat at times -- in this book, in a couple of improbable "take this job and shove it" scenes in which Beau blows off his smarmy new boss.

Of course, real people do resort to cliches -- in language and behavior. While the dialogue Jance turns out may be unimaginative at times, it is never unimaginable. She's a master of realism, and that's what keeps her readers coming back. | February 1999

KAREN G. ANDERSON writes regularly about crime fiction for January Magazine.