“I usually start with somebody dead,” said author J.A. Jance, of her process. “I spend the rest of the book trying to figure out who did it, and how come.”
Jance, who this year celebrates the 40th anniversary of creating her beloved Seattle homicide detective J.P. Beaumont (she began her first Beaumont novel, “Until Proven Guilty” in 1983; it was published two years later), doesn’t go for planning out her stories in advance. “I met outlining in Mrs. Watkins’ sixth-grade geography class in Bisbee, Ariz.,” she said, in a telephone interview from her Bellevue home. (Jance and her husband split their time between the Northwest and Southwest.) She hated outlining then, and she hates it now. “I write for the same reason people read,” she said. “I want to know what happened.”
Over four decades of writing and much acclaim, a lot has happened. Jance has written more than 60 books, many of them bestsellers, with a remarkable career total of more than 20 million copies sold. Most of her books fit into four franchises, featuring Beaumont (her most longstanding series; she just completed book number 26, to be published next year), Arizona journalist Ali Reynolds, Arizona law enforcement officer Joanna Brady, and the Walker family, an interconnected series set in the Southwest that frequently draws on Jance’s memories of working on Indigenous reservations as a librarian and teacher.
Her newest book, “Blessing of the Lost Girls” (William Morrow, out now), fits into the latter group. A serial-killer drama involving a series of murdered Indigenous women, it was, Jance said, the book that brought her mojo back. Her previous book, an Ali Reynolds installment, was unusually challenging: Though Jance usually completes a book in about six months, “Collateral Damage” took twice that. “After struggling with that book for a whole year, I thought, this is probably my last book,” she said. “I’ll never be able to write another one.”
While working on that book, Jance heard from a friend in Oregon who had come to know a Lakota man named James, left paraplegic since an attack in the 1990s by the Boxcar Killer, a serial killer who targeted Indigenous people and pushed his victims under moving trains. James, Jance said, spent the next 20 years working as a counselor in Portland, ministering to disaffected urban Indigenous youth, until his death in the spring of 2021. Jance’s friend reported that before he died, James — who had enjoyed Jance’s books — said to her, “Tell your friend to write more Walker books. The world needs more Indian heroes.” A character inspired by James appears in “Blessing of the Lost Girls”; another hero in the book is investigator Dan Pardee, himself a son of a murdered Indigenous woman.
Inspired by James’ request, Jance wanted to get started on a new Walker book right away — but, raised in a family of seven kids, she knew the rules: no dessert until your plate is clean. “I carried that into my literary life,” she said. “I can’t think about the next book until I finish the one I’m working on.” Finally ready to start, she struggled over her typical entry point into a book: its title. After three sleepless nights, Jance consulted her “literary engineer” (also known as “my second husband, the good one”), Bill. “He thought about it for a minute and a half and he said, how about ‘Blessing of the Lost Girls?’” She started writing the book the next morning, and it was done in two months. “It just seemed to flow out of my head, without me even having to think about it.”
It’s the latest in a literary journey that began in Seattle long ago. Jance, born in South Dakota and raised in Arizona, came here “because I was a refugee from a bad marriage and a worse divorce.” Her sister lived in Seattle, so Jance arrived in 1981 with two young children in tow. She’d long wanted to be a writer, but hadn’t been allowed into the creative writing program at the University of Arizona, where a professor told her in 1964, “You’re a girl. Girls become teachers or nurses, boys become writers.” (In case you’ve wondered why the crazed killer in Jance’s “Hour of the Hunter” turns out to be a former professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona, that’s why.)
Sharing a Denny Regrade condo with her sister and kids, selling life insurance by day, Jance began toying with the idea of writing crime fiction. At first, it didn’t come easily. After six months of struggling with a detective novel, she sent her children off to camp for spring break in 1983 and boarded a train to visit a friend in Portland.
“As the train pulled out of the King Street Station, I thought, what would happen if I wrote this book through the detective’s point of view,” she remembered. “So I pulled out a pen and a notebook and I wrote down, ‘She might have been a cute kid once. That was hard to tell now. She was dead.’” In that moment, “I was on the back side of Magnolia Bluff, I was walking around the crime scene in J.P. Beaumont’s shoes, I was seeing what he saw, I was hearing what he heard. But I was also hearing what was going on in his head. Beaumont and J.A. Jance have been character and author ever since.”
Jance just finished her 26th Beaumont novel, and says he’s changed over the years; most notably, he’s been in recovery from alcoholism since the seventh book. It was readers, Jance said, who made her aware that Beaumont had a drinking problem. During a signing for the fourth book, she said, “A lady came up to me and she said very seriously, ‘Beau drinks every day, he has a drink of choice, it’s starting to interfere with his work. Does J.P. Beaumont have a problem?’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘You know these are books.’ But at that set of signings, six other people asked me the same questions. And it finally dawned on me, he did have a problem and it had been totally invisible to me.”
He’s now been in recovery for much longer than he was drinking, “but occasionally I still have people who tell me they liked him better when he was drunk.” People sometimes tell Jance that reading about Beaumont’s struggle with alcoholism helped them address their own problems, and “that is an unexpected consequence that I never saw coming. I’m always really touched when someone tells me that.”
Jance, 79, has no plans to retire; next up is another Ali Reynolds book, followed by another Joanna Brady. “I have no idea what that’s going to be about,” she said of her next book, “but I’ll figure it out.” Each book is a journey, the endpoint of which isn’t clear until she writes her way there. “If you know what’s going to happen, why the hell would you want to write it,” she said. “Finding out what happens is sort of the point.”