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The mystery is smart, but not the heroine

Special to The Times

J.A. JANCE writes lots of books that lots of people read. Her popularity is no mystery. Jance starts her books fast, centers the action on strong, likable female protagonists and keeps things moving with cinematic panache. You want deep and meaningful? Read somebody else. You want an accessible thriller? Jance is your gal.

Her newest book, “Web of Evil,” the 34th of her career, opens with typical Jance verve. NBC news executive Paul Grayson awakens from a drunken stupor to find himself in a nightmare. Bound and stuffed in the trunk of a moving car, Grayson desperately tries to remember how he got there. Then, ominously, the car stops moving. Grayson hears a dull roar and realizes that a train is bearing down on him. In TV terms, Grayson is about to be canceled.

Meanwhile, in picturesque Sedona, Ariz., former local L.A. TV newscaster Ali Reynolds sets off across the desert to confront her past in the guise of two legal proceedings. The first is her age discrimination suit against the network that replaced her with a younger model. The second is her divorce proceeding against Grayson, who did the same thing, throwing Reynolds over for April Gaddis, a svelte young wanna-be Pilates instructor. Grayson intended to marry April the day after his divorce from Reynolds became final.

As the embittered Reynolds drives through the desert, she unknowingly passes the wreck that has killed Grayson, and made Reynolds a widow instead of a divorcee.

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Whatever joy Reynolds might have taken from Grayson’s death proves short-lived. Grayson found the time to get his fiancee April pregnant but not to change his will to make her or their child his beneficiary. Instead, his estranged wife Reynolds stands to get his fortune. As if being a scorned woman wasn’t enough, Reynolds now has a financial motive to kill her husband, and soon becomes the prime suspect in his murder.

Along with the lawyer handling her divorce, and the second lawyer handling her wrongful termination suit, Reynolds now has to hire a third lawyer, criminal defense specialist Victor Angeleri.

Not that she listens to any of them. As the body count rises, the police become convinced that Reynolds is guilty of multiple murders. Yet Reynolds ignores Angeleri’s advice to keep quiet and talks to the police, digging herself into a deeper hole. She goes to various crime scenes and inadvertently contaminates evidence, incriminating herself even more.

For a journalist, even one who works in TV, Reynolds is surprisingly uninformed. She is shocked to learn that the police can get her phone records. She is stunned that what she writes on her blog about the case can be read by anyone on the Internet, including the detectives investigating her.

This ignorance of police procedure is especially hard to understand since Reynolds was once investigated and cleared for having killed a man in self-defense.

And, boy, is Reynolds gullible. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that she tends to give the benefit of the doubt to the wrong people. Maybe the network didn’t fire Reynolds because of her age. Maybe it’s because she’s a dope.

Jance is a solid practitioner of the mystery game, where the writer builds her plot with plenty of twists and turns, but still lets the reader play along, staying one step ahead or behind the heroine. The creator of two previous mystery series, Jance knows her stuff. But she usually writes smarter characters. Reynolds comes off like Ron Burgundy in drag, a know-it-all TV news personality who actually knows very little.

As for what Jance intended by the book’s title, I’m at a loss. Courteous Web posters know to warn readers of impending spoilers; that is, information that reveals a plot twist or surprise. So take notice.

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If you want to be surprised by how the Web figures into the book’s plot, don’t read the following: Neither the blog nor the Internet play any significant role in the story. None. If Jance intended to fool the reader into thinking that somehow the case was going to be complicated or solved through computers, she certainly fooled me.

While “Web of Evil” isn’t Jance at her best, it’s still Jance, which means there are engaging and entertaining elements. Reynolds is spunky if not particularly bright, and her relationship with her mother, the compassionately conservative Edie, is terrific. There are enough red herrings to make it an entertaining enough read for the committed Jance fan. Those unfamiliar with Jance might want to start with a better example of her talent.

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Jonathan Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor, writes and produces for television.

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