"TRIAL BY FIRE," by J.A. Jance, Touchstone, $25.99 (f)

Ali Reynolds has left behind life as a TV journalist, but that gave her just the experience that Sheriff Gordon Maxwell needs when his force in Yavapai County is rocked by potential scandal and the media relations expert is placed on leave for misconduct.

When Ali agrees to fill the position temporarily, she has no idea that she's about to walk into the middle of a genuine mystery — and a dangerous one, at that.

A woman has been badly burned, and the police suspect that was no accident. But her injuries are critical, and she's the only one who truly knows what happened to her. When she does start to come around, she can't remember, and it becomes the quest of others to piece it together, to keep her safe and find a measure of justice.

Working with a nurse at the hospital, Sister Anselm, Ali's determined to figure out who the woman is and why someone might want to kill her.

This fifth Ali Reynolds book is a compelling tale that nonetheless bogs down a little in the middle as Ali spend a lot of time at the hospital, disguised so no one notices her as she takes notes on conversations surrounding the burned woman. She's a fly on the wall, but potentially dangerous to someone who's decidedly deadly in turn.

This book is slower-paced than some of Jance's tales, but in many ways immensely satisfying. Ali Reynolds is becoming a more rounded and compelling heroine, easy to hang out with and enjoy.

When she gets the big freeze from her new colleagues, you feel the sting. Her attempts to woo them with her mom's great bakery concoctions have you hoping that someone will cut her some slack on the job front. And her stubborn charm makes her seem as real as a friend sharing tales of her day.

As always, Jance has peppered the trail with treasures that make it hard to put the book down. Once you start, you'll stick around to find out whodunit.

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