Book review: Stan Jones, a master of the northern mystery, takes the genre to California with a co-written detective novel

“The Sand Garden”

By Stan Jones & Mary Wasche; Bowhead Press, 2023; 258 pages; $17.95.

January is a good month to get out of Alaska and go someplace warm. Plenty of Alaskans are doing just that, but if you’re unable to get Outside right now, let longtime Alaskan writer Stan Jones take you on a vicarious trip someplace warm. Or in this case, some place a little too warm. Palm Springs in summer. It might make you appreciate winter.

Jones is best known to readers for his long-running Nate Active detective novel series set in the fictional Arctic village of Chukchi, a stand-in for Kotzebue. He’s proven his chops as a mystery writer with those stories, which are filled with all the requisite elements of the genre, including a strong evocation of the place where events unfold, solid character development, and enough plot twists to keep readers guessing where the tales are going.

This time out he’s taking a break from the chilly north and relocating to the southwestern desert where, along with co-writer Mary Wasche of Minnesota (another cold place in January), he’s launched a new series that follows former cop and current private investigator Dana Forsythe. If the first installment is any indication, the two are on to something fun.

“The Sand Garden” opens up on a sweltering night at Dana’s home, where she receives one of her periodic visits from a man known to her only as the Chaplain. He’s a mysterious individual with a background in the military and clandestine government activities.

This visit is different, however. This time he arrives with young twins and a load of baby gear. They aren’t just any babies, Dana quickly learns. Their children fathered by her husband, Frank, another cop, who was killed in the line of duty. Dana, who has been grieving his loss, had no idea her husband had been having an affair, much less that children were involved. And she’s the only one who can do anything for them, because their mother, Jennifer Williams, was murdered earlier that evening by an unknown assailant.


Dana is stunned. She doesn’t know what to do with the kids. And while she suddenly finds herself enraged at her dead husband, and is immediately filled with anger at Jennifer, she still ultimately winds up working on the case. This is detective fiction, so it can go no other way.

Jennifer, we learn, was found on a roadside in the desert shot with one bullet in the throat and five more in her crotch. The bullet that entered her neck has not been recovered, but the other five have, and it’s assumed they all came from the same gun. She was a dangerously attractive woman who drew men to her, apparently doted on her twins, and worked at the Palm Springs chamber of commerce. Who murdered her and why are unanswered questions.

Dana teams up with another private investigator, Ike Skogel, to get to the bottom of the case. The two start digging about, and in mystery novel fashion, begin piecing together the circumstances of the killing and finding the people who saw her that night.

This takes Dana, sometimes accompanied by Ike, around ritzy Palm Springs, as well as to the other side of the nearby, heavily polluted, and now dead Salton Sea, where the squatter camp known as Slab City rests (Alaskans, as well as legions of misguided pilgrims, will recognize Slab City as one of Christopher McCandless’ stops on his westward journey across America that preceded his misbegotten trek north). One resident of the camp was with Jennifer on the night she was killed and was seen leaving a party with her, so the duo pays him a visit, allowing the authors to recreate that uniquely Californian locale.

[With a lifetime of Alaska experiences under his belt, author Stan Jones tackles a new series]

On the wealthy side of the Salton, the two also question a real estate agent and her plastic surgeon husband, who specializes in boob jobs. The power couple are living the good life, which of course means that wealth, status, and a vapid lifestyle are their stock in trade. Between Slab City and Palm Springs, the authors, neither of whom live in California, have concocted one hell of a California novel, capturing the Golden State at two of its extremes.

Jones and Wasche bring to life a Palm Springs that is almost a reverse image of Alaska. Instead of being too cold, it’s far too hot. For Alaskan readers, tiring out now from several months of warming their cars up to get the heat going so the interior can be thawed out enough to sit in it and drive, what Dana deals with is starting her car and letting it warm up enough for the air conditioning to kick in and cool the passenger compartment down enough to make it habitable. That sounds like even less fun. After all, you can dress for the cold, but you can only get undressed so much for the heat.

How hot is it? “Outside heat monkeys dance on the asphalt griddle of the parking lot,” the authors tell us through Dana’s first person present tense voice. “Not a cloud in the sky, a blue so bright your eyes hurt. The palm trees along the sides bow before a hot dry wind that brooms sand across the pavement. We throw open the door and dash for our cars.”

This sounds like the evil anti-Alaska, and might even make readers appreciate January a bit more.

Jones and Wasche place a few red herrings into the plot, present a few suspects (including Dana herself, who certainly, had she known about the affair, would have had the motive to kill Jennifer, something the Palm Springs media picks up on), offer some unexpected twists, and keep readers guessing. Revealing too much would spoil the fun of reading this book. And it is a fun book.

The two authors work well together, and the story moves along briskly. And with heat and blistering sunshine from start to finish, it’s the perfect getaway for cold January evenings in Alaska.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at