Damage Control by J.A. Jance

controlReviewed by Douglas R. Cobb

Was a car wreck involving an elderly couple who drove off the side of a mountain a double suicide, as a note in the glove compartment suggests, or was it something entirely different? This is one of the cases Sheriff Joanna Brady has to deal with in J.A. Jance’s Damage Control, now out in paperback. As the title suggests, Joanna has her work more than cut out for her in this novel. Besides her everyday concerns about how to manage being a sheriff and handling budgetary issues, she has a teenaged daughter at home and a baby boy she and her second husband, Butch Dixon, have had together, and Joanna finds it difficult to juggle being a working mother and wife and also being a sheriff who is on call basically twenty-four/seven. It’s an especially difficult task for her in this book, where Joanna is confronted with several crimes that have occurred within Cochise County, Arizona, the county she’s a sheriff over. Exerting damage control and trying to maintain some semblance of control as a sheriff and in her personal life, Joanna discovers, is not an easy thing to do.

Another case that is a major part of the plot is one where fourteen-year-old Luis Andrade, nephew of homicide Detective Jaime Carbajal, while searching for stuff illegal aliens/drug smugglers have left behind in the desert – like backpacks with money in them – comes across two black plastic trash bags that have been duct taped together. He uses any money found in this way to give to his mother, Marcella, a prostitute and drug abuser, and socks some away in the event an emergency might happen. When he pokes at the bags with a stick and a skull rolls out, he is, of course, frightened, and he tells his uncle about his grisly discovery as soon as he can. The decomposing body inside is that of a woman with Downs Syndrome, Wanda Mappin, who’d gone missing from Holbrock House, a group home for the mentally impaired where she’d been living for several years since her mother had placed her there.

Also, a suspicious mobile home fire takes the life of Leonard Sunderson, an elderly man who had been a coal miner and suffered from black lung disease. Was it the result of the oxygen container Sunderson had to rely on in order to breathe exploding from a lit cigarette he had been smoking, or was the fire caused by faulty wiring, or was it due to something else? He leaves behind a grieving widow and two grandchildren, Danny and Rick, who he and his wife had been raising, according to Joanna’s minister, since their father was no longer “in the picture,” and the boys’ mother “got caught up in the drug trade and is doing time for manslaughter back east somewhere.”

These cases take up a lot of Sheriff Brady’s time and cut into the time she is able to devote to her family. Then there is the finagling she has to do to get the loan of a helicopter to retrieve the bodies of the couple who crashed off the mountainside in the Coronado National Monument forest, and also the adult feuding daughters of the couple who come to the town of Bisbee to make arrangements for their parents’ funeral and who end up in jail for having a drunken brawl and assaulting officers of the law. There is also her daily meetings, briefings, stacks of mail and paperwork to contend with, which has led some reviewers to comment that they don’t like the character of Joanna Brady as much anymore, because she seems to be neglecting her family too much.

You can’t please everyone, I suppose – I can’t help but think that people would probably also complain if she spent too much time taking care of household duties and being with her family, as it would lessen the action and suspense of the novel. Personally, I like a mystery to have as much action and suspense as possible, and I really enjoyed reading this book.

Also, the reviewers I mentioned have left out certain things the author wrote about Joanna that go a long way, for myself at any rate, to let the readers know that the events in this novel are unique for even the harried Sheriff Brady. When duty calls, a police officer has to answer that call, especially when the personnel available is limited. She gets swamped with cases to deal with, but that’s a part of the job that comes with the territory. Besides that, Butch Dixon looks at the role and obligations of being a father differently than did her deceased husband, Andy. She loves both of them, but Butch wants to take a more hands-on, involved approach, and he is an author, who works generally out of their home, so he doesn’t usually mind spending time with their new son Dennis and caring for him. In past books in the series, this duty – then, just for her daughter, Jenny – would fall most often to her in-laws.

Damage Control amps up the action and suspense of the Sheriff Brady series more than ever, keeping the readers on the edge of their seats and up late into the night reading about what comes next. IMHO, this makes it one of the best novels in the series, though they’re all good and any of them will give readers who love mysteries plenty of entertainment for the money. J.A. Jance is a very good mystery author who has created one of the most memorable sheriffs in literature, and I’d recommend to anyone who loves the genre to check out Damage Control and add it to their reading lists.

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