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The rapidly moving story makes it a fascinating mystery
on March 6, 2013
The author of four popular mystery series, J. A. Jance opens DEADLY STAKES with a prologue detailing the life of Gemma Ralston, newly divorced and looking for a makeover at Video Glam. Gemma is the product of a drug-addicted mother, removed from her care and raised by her grandparents starting at the age of two. A hint of her mother's problems comes out when her grandmother offers this advice upon Gemma's entrance into college: "find yourself some dependable young man, preferably a pre-med student, and marry him....a surgeon...the guys who make the big bucks." Gemma did precisely that, marrying Chip Ralston but divorcing him when her financial expectations were not reached.
Jance fills the pages with numerous characters and multiple plot lines, so many that the reader has to take an occasional deep breath. But her story is well-crafted and keeps one's interest to its final word. We meet several major players before police academy-trained former reporter Ali Reynolds comes onto the scene. Ali learns about Gemma's death from her good friend, Detective Dave Holman, at her mother's election-night defeat party. He tells her that the main evidence at the crime scene is a cell phone, lost by its owner the night before. The individual is Lynn Martinson, Chip's current girlfriend, who has spent the entire morning looking for it.
When Gemma's body is identified, Lynn and Chip find themselves in deep trouble. Beatrice Hart, Lynn's mother, contacts Ali to help her when they are arrested. The cell phone found near Gemma's body points to them as chief suspects, though there is still the mystery of the male caller who texted the 911 call about the injured woman but was not at the scene when emergency help arrived. When Ali contacts Dave to break the bad news about her daughter to Beatrice, they hear that a second body has been found in the same remote area near Gemma's. The deceased man is identified as James Mason Sanders, an ex-con who had served prison time for counterfeiting.
Puzzling circumstances involving the dead man's son, A.J., will change his life. Detailed instructions about a gift from his father, with a plea to keep it a secret from his mother, arouse A.J.'s curiosity. He leaves school and drives to the isolated Camp Verde area, parks, and follows a dead end trail. He walks exactly 300 feet, ending at a boulder decorated with a painted heart; he is to dig behind the rock and will find the means to access a large cache of funds. His father's parting words are "Have a great life." Unnerved by discovering Gemma at the scene, A.J. makes the call to 911 and leaves, before locating the boulder.
Ali investigates the possibilities in the Ralston murder, but the man found dead near her pricks her penchant for all details. She delves into the fact that Sanders leaves behind a wife and child in the area. When Ali contacts Sylvia, A.J.'s mother, about her husband's death, she learns that a college prank with three other students landed Sanders in jail. Sylvia raised her son alone, protecting him from notoriety. She reveals that Sanders had given A.J. a car for his birthday, which she had allowed him to keep, as a gift of back child support. Ali's detective temperature rises on that information. Did the man come into a big source of money by illegal means?
Before its conclusion, the book introduces multiple characters, some of whom may be external fluff. However slight their part, each has a role in leading Reynolds to the solution. The Ralston family's support of Gemma following the divorce brings out a strange family dynamic involving the deceased father, his son and daughter. The rapidly moving story makes it a fascinating mystery, full of multiple suspects and numerous possibilities, but one solution. J. A. Jance fans are sure to be entertained by DEADLY STAKES and anticipating her next novel.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad