“Downfall” by J.A. Jance is a riveting mystery that also tackles moral issues. She is one of those special authors who never disappoints. While bringing to the forefront some controversial and disturbing issues Jance also has the reader trying to solve the crime of how two women fell to their death.
The plot begins with a puzzling case for Sherriff Joanna Brady when two women have fallen or were pushed to their deaths at a mountaintop called Geronimo. She must figure out if it is a double suicide, a murder/suicide, or a double homicide. During the investigation Brady and her department find clues of sordid secrets and evil lies. One of the victims is a high school teacher that had affairs with her students, basically committing statutory rape. Sent to help with the investigation is FBI Agent Robin Watkins. This new character is refreshing and will hopefully be recurring. She and Joanna have a similar personality and common ground with their personal problems. Beyond that they make a great team as they pursue all the clues to what really happened to those women who fell.
In this book the setting plays such an important role that it is almost like a secondary character. Jance remembers when “I climbed Geronimo I was eleven. This was my only time. I did it on my hands and knees going up and coming down on my butt. I put in the story how every child felt, including myself, who climbed it. It is a right of passage between childhood and adolescence. Of course no one tells their parents their intentions until they are safely back down. When I climbed it I remember seeing these ‘cactuses.’ I incorporated them into the story as well. With the help of people from the University of Arizona I established what they were, which is why I dedicated this book to those experts. If it is one of my books you can count on the fact that I have been there and done that.”
Beyond the mystery is the exploration of the personal life of the main character, Joanna Brady. She faces many obstacles in this book including running for re-election, having to deal with the recent killing of her mother and stepdad, her daughter going off to college, and being five months pregnant. Sometimes when an author puts in many insights into the character’s personal life, it takes away from the plot. This is definitely not the case. By highlighting Joanna’s personal life as a mother, wife, and grieving daughter the story is enhanced. Beyond that she must also deal with the intense sibling rivalry she feels about her stepbrother who came into her life as an adult. These events present challenges that almost anyone can relate to. A quote from the book highlights how women feel about balancing their professional and personal lives, “The disappointment registered on Denny’s (Joanna’s young son) face represented every working mother’s all too familiar tug of war.”
An interesting side issue was how Jance had the female characters reacting to their mother-daughter relationship.
“A lot of us have issues with our mothers; I know I did,” Jance said. “I remember after getting my college degree looking down on my mother with her sixth grade education and just being a housewife. This was terribly arrogant of me. Once I had children my mother began getting smarter. What I have written is not exactly my mothers and my relationship, but it is certainly related.”
She is hoping that readers of the series will see Chief Deputy Tom Hadlock coming into his own. “Since he was appointed to the position some books ago, he has been struggling in handling certain aspects of the job. But in this book it was really terrific to see how he handled this crisis and to be at some point solely in charge of the Sheriff’s department. He validated Joanna’s faith in him.”
“Downfall” takes readers on a journey that uncovers a possible kidnapping, hypocrisies, a pedophile, and abuse. The crime story is explosive and riveting. Readers will be shocked with the many twists and turns as they quickly flip the pages. As Jance ends the book, giving a shout out to Dale Evans, Roy Rogers, and their trusty animals, readers should also feel a sense of Happy Trails with this story.