California lawyer Evan Delaney has survived an insane religious cult and a death-fetishist serial killer, and in Jericho Point, the third novel in Meg Gardiner's crime series, she has another set of very deadly problems to deal with. The trouble begins with the gruesome murder of a young girl at a Santa Barbara party attended by Jesse's immature, wayward brother P.J. Turns out the dead girl was an accomplished identity thief, and Evan was her last victim. Sucked into a dangerous whirlpool of crime, violence, and rock and roll, Evan and Jesse must outfight a pair of vicious loan sharks, navigate some fresh wrinkles in their incredibly complicated relationship, and identify a demented killer within the ranks of Santa Barbara's would-be celebrities.
Mission Canyon, the last Evan Delaney novel, was one of my favorite thrillers in forever (the first installment, China Lake, had problems, but was still pretty great overall). Jericho Point falls somewhere in between its too predecessors. It's an extremely fun read, a propulsive hybrid of mystery and thriller, with expertly drawn scenes of tension and suspense and some truly fantastic character-building. And Gardiner's spiky, sassy prose is, as ever, a delight. I do have some issues with the novel that prevent it from reaching the heights of Mission Canyon, though.
Problems first: Jericho Point's Achilles Heel is that the plot keeps slipping out of Gardiner's control. It's not poorly constructed at all, but it's labyrinthine and convoluted to the point where the pacing gets jerky as different parts of the story get focus and other fall into the background. There's a lack of cohesion, especially in the middle segments where the book – like so many mystery novels before it – sags under the weight of so many rapidly intersecting plot points. The final quarter of the novel really gets back on track, as things start clicking into place in time for the action climax. I like big, complicated plots, but they're awfully difficult to consistently maintain over three hundred and fifty pages. My only other significant gripe is that Gardiner's tendency to slip into cartoonishness – the grab-bag of sneering baddies, Evan careening from one over-the-top encounter to another – sometimes undercuts the serious stuff a little.
A couple of plotting snarls don't make this a bad novel, though. Not by a long shot. Jericho Point, like all the Evan Delaney books, is inventive and funny and quick, but there's a dark undercurrent to it that sets it apart from other exciting thrillers. When Evan is horrifyingly assaulted by two thugs by the side of the road, she suffers from realistic post-traumatic stress. She doesn't shake off such a harrowing experience and bounce fresh-faced to the next adventure like Nancy Drew. Jesse is still haunted by the events of the last book and beyond, even to the point where he seriously considers suicide. Evan's flirtation with sexy fighter pilot Marc isn't a cute subplot, it's a very real and frightening threat to Evan and Jesse's relationship. Gardiner's characters go through insane stuff, but they remain human. That, for me, is perhaps Gardiner's greatest strength as an author: following through on the psychological toll that being protagonists in a crime series takes on her characters. Evan and Jesse are rich, complex characters, and they resonate. I do wish Evan was a bit more flawed at times; she can feel a tiny bit Mary Sue-ish at times, always ready with the perfect quip.
The supporting cast are somewhat flimsier than the two protagonists, but there's plenty of depth there, too. Jesse's passive-aggressive family, for example, are so sharply portrayed it seems like they just walked out of a Jonathan Franzen novel (P.J. in particular will make you want to give him a hug and punch him in the face, at the same time). The book's villains are a little too uniformly psychotic for my taste, although the vile Murphy Ming is memorably grotesque. I would have liked more of Sin Jimson, the snaky, manipulative stepdaughter of an aging rock star; she's a character I could imagine popping up again to wreak fresh havoc.
Characters aren't the only things Gardiner can write: Evan's narration is laden with pop culture references, playful wordplay, quirky, poetic descriptions and loads of delicious snark. Her dialogue is usually crisp and pleasingly screwball, although when events takes a heavy turn, it hums with tension. And the woman can write suspense and action like nobody's business: the huge final sequence, set on an oil rig, is a nightmarish tour de force of escalating terror. I like my thrillers to go big and wild for the climax, and Meg Gardiner always delivers on that front. She even dispatches one of the novel's bad guys in as gruesome and creative a manner as I've ever encountered in a novel.
Jericho Point is not a perfect thriller (it's just a hair too chaotic in its plotting), but it is an absolutely top-drawer one, with strong prose and deeply compelling characters. Meg Gardiner is slowly getting more visibility as an author (particularly after Stephen King's article praising the Delaney series in Entertainment Weekly), and hopefully she'll eventually receive all the attention and accolades she deserves. With Jericho Point, the Evan Delaney series continues to delight, and I'm already looking forward to seeing what Gardiner will throw at Evan and Jesse in the next volume.