Friday, August 29, 2014

Book Review: Death Valley by Sandy Dengler (Jack Prester #1)

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Great characters, fun story, good use of setting.
Cons: I can't think of any.
The Bottom Line:
Travel to desert
As Jack solves first mystery
Still great years later

Dead Body in Death Valley - How Appropriate

While most people make the transition from the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew to Agatha Christie, I made mine to Sandy Dengler.  I had already enjoy many of her books for all ages when she came out with several mysteries aimed at adults.  I started with Death Valley, the first in her Jack Prester series, and I was hooked.  Rereading it now, it’s easy to see why.

Jack is part of an experimental program in the National Parks.  He’s a floater that heads to whatever park needs him to coordinate between various law enforcement agencies to peacefully and efficiently deal with a crisis.  When this book opens, the program is just getting off the ground, and this is Jack’s chance to prove the program is worthwhile.

Jack is called to Death Valley when the body of George Gibbs is found in a salt creek.  George had been in the park investigating irregularities in the park funds.  As a result, Jack is assigned Evelyn Brant as a partner to come in and help with that side of the investigation.  Ev is a great accountant, but she is a city girl through and through and the desert is a very alien world to her.

When the two head out to the crime scene, Jack’s dog Maxx digs up another body in the sand.  This second body is a biker, one of close to a thousand former Hell’s Angels who have invaded the park to relive their glory days.  How is his death related to George’s murder?  What had George’s investigation of the funds turned up?  Will Ev ever get used to the desert?  And will the growing tension between the bikers and the park rangers lead to violence?

I was actually surprised just how much of this story I remember as I sat down to reread it.  I must have read it more than once to remember it so distinctly 20 years later.  As a result, it’s hard to judge the plot.  Since I remembered what happened, I felt like the clues were obvious.  However, as a college freshman (I wasn’t reading as many mysteries in high school or reading for pleasure much at all), I didn’t pick up on them and was completely fooled until the end when Jack lays out all the clues I had missed.

The characters were vivid in my mind, and they stayed that way as I reread the book.  There is a surprisingly large cast, and they are all distinct, which helps keep them all straight in my mind.  Ev gets the most character development, and while she starts out cold and aloof, you can’t help but love her by the end.

I have always loved Sandy Dengler’s books because of her wonderful writing, and this book reminded me why.  Sandy’s husband was a national parks ranger and they were stationed at Death Valley at one point.  That factors in to her descriptions of the park, and you feel like you are there.  Additionally, her unique writing style makes great use of the language to emphasize things and truly keep you engaged.  Plus there’s a Frisbee scene at the end that is absolutely amazing.  And I’m not just saying that because I love ultimate Frisbee.  I thought the scene was wonderful when I read it before I’d even heard of the sport I now play several times a week.   There's even a bit of humor in the book.  A couple of the characters are enjoyable, but the narration really manages to slip a few grins into the story.

This book was written for a Christian audience.  Jack and some of the other characters are Christian, and there isn't any bad language (although one of the bikers swears quite a bit; we just aren't told what words he uses).  There are several discussions of God and Christianity.  To me, it grows out of the characters and who they are.  While it does serve as character development, I never feel it slows the book down.

I reread the copy I've had for 20 years, however, the book is newly out for Kindle.  Since the book was written so long ago, there are definite references to things that are dated, like how expensive Ev's computer is or the type of cell phone someone hands Jack at one point.  Frankly, I got a kick out of that, but just keep that in mind as you read the book.

I'm glad to see this series available again, and I'm looking forward to the excuse to revisit the fun series.  If you have yet to meet Jack Prester, Death Valley is the place to do it.

If you are like me and prefer the paper version, here's a link to the used copies.

And once you get started, you'll want to read the rest of the Jack Prester Mysteries in order.

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