Book review

The “A List” in J.A. Jance’s newest thriller has nothing to do with celebrity — and everything to do with revenge. It’s an “Annihilation List” of five names, self-tattooed on the arm of a convicted killer serving life without parole. And one of the names is Ali Reynolds, a former broadcast journalist whose investigation sent the murderous Dr. Edward Gilchrist to Folsom Prison. 

Jance, the best-selling author of 16 previous Ali Reynolds mysteries (as well as three other successful series), has created in fertility doctor Gilchrist a particularly loathsome villain. When his adultery with his receptionist/nurse Dawn leads to an expensive divorce, Gilchrist cut corners by becoming the secret sperm donor for a long list of fertility patients who thought their offspring sired by their choice from a catalogue of handsome, brilliant donors. (Dawn was “more than happy to supply the occasional egg.”) You’d think that a physician with a family history of kidney disease would be too smart to play reproductive roulette, but Gilchrist continued fathering children until advances in DNA technology made it clear that the roof might fall in. 

And it did. After former patient Alex Munsey’s search for records (yes, her son inherited kidney disease) exposes Gilchrist, he commissions the death of Dawn, now his wife, who’d turned on him. He goes to prison — life without parole — after a confession by the hit man hired to kill Dawn. In the slammer, Gilchrist tattoos himself with the initials of five people against whom he seeks revenge for his downfall: in addition to Dawn, there’s her hired murderer; Kaitlyn Todd, the nurse/receptionist who took Dawn’s place; Alex Munsey, who uncovered Gilchrist’s fraud; and Ali Reynolds, the TV reporter who aided Alex’s search for mothers whose children looked uncannily like Alex’s son. 

Ali’s broadcast career has since ended; she has a new husband (called “B.”), and there’s Frigg, an AI sidekick with astonishing analytical talents. For the past decade, Ali has been running her own cybersecurity and criminal-hunting firm in Sedona, Arizona, but as it becomes clear that all of Gilchrist’s foes are being killed off, she and B. (and Frigg) mobilize to stop him.

Crucial to the plot is Gilchrist’s wealthy and unprincipled mother, Hannah, who subsidizes his sinister doings. Despite the fact that the prison visitations are closely monitored and recorded, the two manage to communicate their evil plans in considerable length and detail by means of a private one-handed sign language the guards somehow fail to observe. This strains the reader’s credulity, in a novel with a few other minor off-putting attributes: a clunky expository structure that hops around several dates and locales, and the very similar names assigned to two major women characters (“Alex” and “Ali).

These issues, however, are unlikely to deter Jance fans as the pace heats up, the body count rises, and violent surprises lurk in every chapter. Don’t be surprised, though, if Frigg steals the show, with its ability to penetrate security-system cameras at crash scenes and hospitals, identifying all the characters with facial-recognition software. What if Jance’s computer character someday puts her humans out of business? 

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“The A List” by J.A. Jance, Gallery Books, $27.99

J.A. Jance will give a talk and sign books on Wednesday, April 17, at 7 p.m. at University Bookstore, 15311 Main St., Mill Creek, 425-385-3530, ubookstore.com