Whidbey women share connection with novelist

NYT Best Selling Author JA Jance will speak about her career and crime novels in Coupeville.

In a roundabout and fateful way, the memory of a small-town Arizona man who died as a Vietnam war hero is behind an event in Coupeville next weekend that will inevitably attract mystery novel fans from across Whidbey Island.

Judy Jance, better known as JA Jance, is a New York Times bestselling author of more than 60 character-driven crime novels during her 40-year career as a writer. Her books have been read by millions of people across the world. She will speak at 1:30 p.m., on April 21 at the Coupeville Rec Hall.

Jance said she will discuss her four-decade writing career, the origins of some of her plots and the stories behind her characters. Judging from her interview with the News-Times, it will be an interesting and engaging talk. She will likely discuss the challenges she’s faced, from a college professor who refused to let a “girl” in his writing class to her late alcoholic husband who wouldn’t let her write to a publisher who didn’t want her to include “Indian stuff” in her book. She finally wrote her first book in 1983.

“Writing is something I’ve always dreamed of doing and it’s amazing that I’m able to live the dream,” she said, adding that it’s incredibly rewarding to hear from readers about how her work has impacted their lives.

Jance made the offer to speak on Whidbey Island during a lunch date with two Coupeville women earlier this year. Jance has been a longtime friend of Bonnie Abney, who makes an appearance in one of her books under her maiden name, and recently met Judy Lynn, who is well known on the island for her work recording oral histories.

The series of fateful connections led to the meeting between the three women.

The story begins in the 1960s, when Bonnie MacLean — who is now Bonnie Abney — went on a blind date in Florida with a young West Point graduate named Doug Davis who happened to be visiting the area. The story of Abney and Davis’ initial meeting and subsequent romance is filled with happenstance, humor and, ultimately, tragedy.

Abney explained that they fell in love and were engaged to be married as he was going through ranger and airborne training. Lt. Davis was then assigned to the 35th Infantry, 25th Infantry Division and deployed to Vietnam in January 1966. Abney, who worked as director of training for Pan American Airlines, was on her way to visit him in Asia when she received a call from his mother.

Davis had died in action. He had been leading a team to try to recover the bodies of fellow soldiers under withering fire when a mortar struck. He would later be awarded a Silver Star for his heroics.

Abney said the Davis family invited her to the funeral in his hometown of Bisbee, Arizona. She said she remembers the family being welcoming and warm, despite the heartbreaking circumstances.

“We became very close,” she said. “That family just took me in.”

Her memory of the visit to the small town also became indelible in her mind.

In the early 1990s, Abney’s sisters introduced her to Jance’s books and she was soon hooked. Jance’s earlier books follow J.P. Beaumont, a homicide detective with the Seattle Police Department. She later introduced series with other protagonists, notably Sheriff Joanna Brady in Bisbee.

Abney said she was reading a Joanna Brady book and recognized the details of Jance’s description of the small town as being from the 1960s, although it was set decades later.

Abney said she told her sister about her suspicion that Jance knew Bisbee from the 1960s and that she might, therefore, know Davis. Her sister was skeptical but told her she would ask the author at an upcoming book signing.

When questioned at the bookstore, Jance immediately replied that she grew up in Bisbee and that “of course” she knew Davis. Everyone from the town knew the hometown hero.

In fact, Jance and Davis went to school together. Jance admits that she had a bit of a crush on the handsome, smart boy, who was a year ahead of her, but concedes that he didn’t pay her any mind.

“I was the scrawny awkward girl, the one with glasses and a fair amount of brains, sitting in the third seat in the row of desks next to the window,” Jance later wrote. “Doug sat in the third seat in the middle row. If I was the wallflower, he was the star, literally the big man on campus.”

Davis was popular in the town long before Vietnam. He was a stellar student, a gifted athlete and a kind person. He graduated valedictorian and was accepted into West Point.

After the book signing, Jance called Abney and the two spoke about Davis and Bisbee for hours. They later met up in the Seattle area and became friends in a relationship that has lasted more than 30 years.

“Douglas is what brought us together,” she said. “Many times in our friendship we have reflected on our memories of him and our admiration of him.”

Jance pointed out that Abney only knew Davis after West Point. She was glad to be able to fill in for her friend some details of Davis’ younger years in Arizona, like her memory of him wearing a toga for a Latin Club party.

About ten years ago, Jance called her friend and asked what she would think about her incorporating Lt. Davis into one of her books. She thought about it for a day and called her back, saying that she trusted her to honor his memory. Over the next few months, Abney filled in the details of her life with Davis and shared letters of sympathy.

“In the process, I began to gain some insight into the young man Doug Davis became after I lost sight of him,” Jance wrote.

Both Doug — who is named Lennie in the story — and Bonnie become integral characters in “Second Watch.” In the story, Beaumont the soldier appears to him in a drug-induced dream, asking him to find his widow. The detective tracks down Bonnie on Whidbey.

Years later, another Coupeville resident, Judy Lynn, became hooked on Jance books. She was reading “Second Watch” and wondered if “Bonnie” in the novel could be her friend. She contacted Abney and learned the story.

Soon afterward, the three women were laughing, talking and taking selfies at a Bellevue cafe.