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Review: J.A. Jance's 'Proof of Life' explores mystery in people's past, and a dog's

Retirement isn't for everyone.

J.P. Beaumont, the main character in J.A. Jance's latest mystery, Proof of Life, isn't taking to it. As the longtime Seattle investigator tells the reader early on, "The words 'clinically depressed' hadn't yet surfaced in my consciousness, but they were lurking around the edges."

Beau, who's as smart as he is curmudgeonly, entered his "unexpected and unwelcome retirement" about a year before this book begins, while he was working on the attorney general's Special Homicide Investigation Team. ("Unfortunate acronym," he notes.)

The AG's death in a car crash led to the disbanding of the unit and left Beau gazing at the rainy view of the Pacific from his cliffside home in Bellingham, Wash., and pondering whether to get a dog to keep him company while his wife, Mel Soames, is busy as the town's chief of police.

Beau isn't bored for long. Mysteries have a way of finding him. While he and Mel are out to dinner in Seattle, where they have a condo, they run into retired newspaper crime reporter and columnist Maxwell Cole, whom Beau calls "one of my least favorite people on the planet." The two men, whose shared history goes back to college days, have an uneasy conversation in which Cole surprises Beau by telling him he'd like to talk about a project.

Two days later, back in Bellingham, Beau is shocked to learn that Cole has died in a fire at the house he inherited from his parents in Seattle's posh Queen Anne Hill neighborhood.

One tie between Beau and Cole was a complex murder case years before involving a couple whose links to a cult led to their deaths. Beau investigated the case, Cole was a close friend of the victims, and both of them were deeply concerned with the couple's daughter, a young woman named Erin Kelsey. She reappears to ask Beau to look into Cole's death, which she does not believe to be accidental.

Soon Beau is deploying his deep historical knowledge of politics and crime (and their intersections) in Seattle. Another suspicious death on Queen Anne Hill, that of the middle-aged son of a former Seattle mayor, found dead on the doorstep of the home of his stepfather — a former police chief — might be connected to a book Cole was working on.

All this murder and mayhem lifts Beau's mood and gives Jance the chance to fill the novel with details about Seattle, where she lives part of the time; she also has a home in Tucson, Ariz.

Jance, 72, didn't publish her first book until she was in her 30s, but she has been very prolific, with many of her books charting on bestseller lists. Proof of Life is her 23rd novel about Beaumont, and she also has three other mystery series, all set in Arizona: 17 books about Cochise County Sheriff Joanna Brady, who lives in Jance's hometown of Bisbee; 12 about Ali Reynolds of Sedona, a TV journalist turned investigator; and five about the Walker family that are set on the Tohono O'odham Reservation outside Tucson, where Jance was a teacher and school librarian for several years.

Beaumont was her first series character, making his debut in 1985 in Until Proven Guilty. In Proof of Life, he deals not only with human mysteries but with a canine one. Early in the book, knowing he has been looking for company, Mel brings home a gigantic hound.

Left homeless after a domestic disturbance, Rambo (an odd name for a female dog, but there it is) is a mostly Irish wolfhound who doesn't warm up to Beau right away. The first night the dog is at their home, he finds her lying in bed next to Mel. When he raises the sheet, "the dog raised her head and bared her teeth. She didn't say a word; she didn't have to. Irish wolfhounds have very long canines, and sometimes not having an argument is the best way to win it."

But the dog, Beau will discover, has a very interesting history, and a pivotal part to play when someone Beau loves falls in harm's way. It's unlikely, though, that will make him any more serene about retirement.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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