J.A. Jance brings back one of her most popular series characters, Ali Reynolds, in FATAL ERROR. Ali is just completing a six-week course at the police academy, and the forty-something, soon-to-be grandmother is the oldest woman in the class. But she has vowed not to fail the training period or be less than stellar at this new job. Just as she thinks she's going to be sworn in, she's furloughed because of budget cuts. In the meantime, she has agreed to take over her parents' restaurant while they take a hard-earned cruise. But getting things going from 6AM to 2PM is starting to wear on her.
Thus, when Ali gets a message from Brenda Riley, a former colleague from her days as an investigative reporter in California, she's surprised. Brenda's fiancé has disappeared, and she needs help. She met the man online, and though she has never seen him in person, she nevertheless agreed to marry him. Then he broke up with her and vanished. Ali agrees to meet with Brenda and is shocked when she sees the shape her old acquaintance is in. She is drunk, she has gained weight, and her clothes are sloppy. Not the picture of the beautiful news anchor she had been. Ali promises to see what she can find out.
The first thing Ali learns is that the fiancé is Richard Lattimer and he lives in California. It turns out that he is really Richard Lowensdale, a cyber stalker who has romanced many women online; when things get too "hot” for him, he changes his screen name and disappears from the women's lives. Brenda is at the breaking point, refusing to believe that her man, who she has fantasized about for so long, is a phony. She tracks down where he lives, breaks into his house and empties his computer. She rationalizes this by convincing herself that she is going to write a book exposing Richard's misdeeds to all of the ladies he has duped. Then she suddenly disappears. Even the reader doesn't know where she is for a while.
As the narrative progresses, bodies pile up and people just seem to vanish. Ali makes the acquaintance of a detective who himself has been pulled off a case for a few days. Together they set about to find out what's really at the bottom of the murders and who is responsible. They explore clues in different parts of the country with the help of Ali's extremely rich and well-connected boyfriend, who offers her everything from free private planes to free computer hacking.
I won't reveal the surprise ending. All I will say is that J.A. Jance ties up all loose ends, and readers will not be disappointed in her latest police procedural.
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on March 28, 2011