By Sarah Hayes, A and E Editor
In March 1970, artifact prospector Amos Warren is found dead in the middle of Soza Canyon, Arizona, shot in the heart. His young protégé and adopted son, “Big Bad” John Lassiter, is tried and convicted for his death—despite the fact that his then girlfriend, Ava Martin, was the one who pulled the trigger and set Lassiter up for the fall. Fast forward to 2015, and Lassiter is now up for parole, but it looks like he will not survive that long if Ava Martin, now Ava Richland, gets her way.
Enter J.P. Beaumont and Brandon Walker, two fictional investigators from the pen of author J.A. Jance who have never met until now, preferring to stay settled in their own separate series. In the newest Jance novel, “Dance of the Bones,” now enjoying a paperback release with an added exclusive novella, the two men become unlikely partners as they investigate what looks like a cold case but is about to get much hotter. Everything gets thrown into the mix—drug smuggling, Native American mythology, archeology, love feuds, criminal justice reform, gun running, and the occasional petulant teenager.
Unfortunately, Beaumont and Walker barely spend any time together, choosing to communicate across phone lines, and the juggling act of plots, sub-plots, and barely-there plots send the entire book on a collision course with incoherency.
Jance has been writing these characters for a long time: the Beaumont novels have been running since 1985, and the Walker family series has been running since 1991. It is clear that Jance has a love for writing law enforcement mysteries in the Southwest, but from the viewpoint of a reader new to her characters, I found her craft utterly lacking in spark or imagination, or any sort of fire that would inspire people to return to her books for over twenty years.
The book itself is short enough, as a mass paperback with over four hundred pages, but getting through those pages was a drag. It did not help that every chapter opened with a segment of Native American mythology that did not fit in with the main narrative at all and only became distracting after the first three times it was used.
None of her characters grabbed my interest, especially not the protagonists. Beaumont and Walker are the most boring parts of the book. When they are not serving as a mouthpiece for the author’s social and political viewpoints, they are playing the cardboard cutout role of the good-hearted-but-gruff-olderman who plays by no one’s rules. They are surrounded by characters like Lani and Leo, Native American characters who defied any expectations of internal development and seemed to exist only to assuage white readers’ conceptions of indigenous people as those who live on reservations do not actually care about racism or class issues and would rather consult crystals than Western medicine.
I have watched some of the TV series “Longmire” (thanks, Netflix!). It is possible to tell a
ripping good story while exploring the socio-economical and racial complexities of being law
enforcement in a town with an indigenous population and reservation-based laws of their own.
“Dance of the Bones” does not do any of that. All attempts to create tension quickly fizzle out,
there is no real feeling that any of the characters are ever in true peril, and Jance’s desperation
for everything to work out neatly and cleanly in the end means that a lot of dumb “happy”
endings get shoehorned into a book that does not deserve them. If there is a loyal following for
these characters and this prose, I am not joining them.