When Ali gets knocked on her backside on all of page one, it just might just make her more appealing, endearing and relatable - because being a 40-something who is just beginning the Police Academy classes for the first time is a wee bit unusual. J.A. Jance’s new novel, Fatal Error, is a breath of fresh air for that unique foundation, police academy classes notwithstanding. Unlike an ‘oma’ (or ‘old lady’), as her classmates not so sweetly call her, Ali’s most exciting tale is just beginning.
From being a fairly well-known news anchor in L.A. and married to being let go and being widowed, Ali’s life has bounced up and down, changing drastically. The one positive outcome of the whole ugly situation is that her husband left her wealthy enough to live whatever life she so chose from there on.
Despite a fairly complex new personal world - being daughter to aging but healthy parents, mother to an adult son and expecting her first twin grandchildren, flipping houses with her assistant, and a lover to balance in the mix - Ali finds herself bored to tears and wishing for work.
Enter classes at the Arizona Police Academy with a bunch of young, ego-driven classmates. When another anchor (who has also been “aged out” of the business) calls, Ali is vaguely interested and briefly distracted. Brenda shows up on an obvious bender with a story about a missing fiancé with a shady history, begging for help. To complicate the tale, the man is someone Brenda has never met: she fell in love online.
Major and minor characters parade in and out for a while. Ali’s career with the PD doesn’t exactly pan out as expected, and we bounce around between places and people for the first 100 pages of. That’s when the story really picks up and begins to truly get interesting. A fairly gory murder takes place, with a brilliantly greedy killer who gets away clean only to kidnap someone else to pin the crime on. A small-town detective in Northern California with a sad, sad personal life assigned to the case finds that there are few leads for him to investigate. He also doesn’t know that in Arizona, Ali is also trying to figure things out - albeit a bit less legally.
With a meandering style of storytelling, Jance weaves a story string by string, agonizing detail by trifling detail, so that it really isn’t until very nearly the end that we see the big murderous picture finally figured out by the pair trying so hard to nail the killer. However, to further set it apart from other tales of this ilk, we - as the omniscient reader - see the murders and kidnapping happen in real time, as the investigators are scrambling about to figure it out. Rather than traditional whodunit, we have more of a let’s-see-if-they-can-figure-out whodunit.
Ali is feisty, tireless and pushy as needed. Gil is similar, if pathetically tired of life. They make an interesting pair. She has not-so-legal contacts, while he his legal police avenues make their case legit as they close in together.
The choppy lack of flow is disconcerting. Odd side characters seem to be there for nothing more than rounding out fluff, both sad and happy. There are ‘cool’ clichés and a significant lack of follow-through in regards to a victim. Still, the forceful presence of the non-policewoman is a definite perk in this tale, and the intricate skill needed to weave all those loose ends in is admirable.
While the big picture is impressive, the jagged and extreme stylized method of storytelling makes it too exhausting to sink into and enjoy. Fatal Error is obviously carefully crafted but definitely not a traditional murder mystery.