REVIEW: Strangers in Death by JD Robb
Dear Ms. Roberts:
I discovered the In Death series almost 20 books in (at the publication of Portrait in Death), so I had the opportunity to read a big chunk of Eve and Roarke’s story all at once. I was immediately and completely caught up in the fictional futuristic world, from the tumultuous adventure of Eve and Roarke’s courtship and marriage, to Peabody and McNab’s touching and funny transformation from antagonists to lovers, to the HoloRoom and AutoChef and hovering cars and every other technological transformation of half a century into the future. It really felt like one integrated story to me, and I couldn’t get enough. Now, after a few more years and almost ten more books in the series, I still feel compelled to check in with Eve and Roarke and New York circa 2060. But whether it’s the months between books or the circumstances of any long series, my enthusiasm shifts back and forth with each new book. With Strangers in Death, my experience was mixed: I loved reading about the investigation but was not so enraptured by the relationship aspects of the novel.
This time out Eve must solve the murder of Thomas A. Anders, a charming and respected sporting goods magnate found dead in his own bed in what appears to be an erotic asphyxiation gone bad. His wife was out of town at the time, suggesting that Mr. Anders had some secrets and perhaps a bit of the kink, something especially humiliating for his family and in stark opposition to his reputation for honesty, sportsmanship, and fidelity. How does Eve endeavor to solve the murder of a man who seems to have no enemies and whose death isn’t one in a string of serial murders?
Like in those wonderful old episodes of Columbo, in Strangers in Death Eve fixes on a suspect quickly, which creates a taut pleasure for the reader who gets to watch her unravel the mystery, thread by thread. Knowing who did it means little if Eve can’t prove it, especially when the high profile of a case like this makes it imperative that she tuck in every single loose end. This has probably become my favorite set-up in the series, because I so often guess the killer very early on that there’s less enjoyment for me in having Eve catch up than there is in watching her match her instinct with the evidence, hoping that she and I have both guessed right. And Eve’s in fine form here, fully confident in her suspicions and wonderfully sharp in both insight and tongue. She’s back to threatening the local addicts into keeping her POS cop car safe, smart-mouthing Summerset, bantering with Baxter (aka Detective Pig-Eater) and Morris, and sparring with Peabody:
“This is going to have to come out of my Roarke fund.” [paying off a bet to Eve]
“You have a fund for Roarke? To donate to him, or to try to buy him?”
“I wish – on the buying part. It’d be a skim for McNab. We have a deal where we both get to pick one person, and if we ever got the chance to . . .” She closed her fist, pumped it while she wiggled her eyebrows. “With said person, the other of us would understand. A one-shot deal. I picked Roarke.”
“Well, he’s a superior lay, so you’d have that before I peeled the skin off your still quivering body, roasted it on an open fire, and then force-fed it to you.”
“Okay then. So . . .” Clearing her throat, Peabody turned the cube on record. “I owe Dallas, Lieutenant Meaniepants Eve, twenty dollars to be paid out of my hard-earned, under-appreciated detectives salary next payday. Peabody, Detective Churchmouse Delia.”
This is the Eve I have enjoyed and admired throughout the series – the Eve who is “the top bitch cop in New York City,” because she understands the law inside and out and has an amazing insight into people and what they try to hide beneath the surface. And when Eve’s in cop mode the novel clips along, the movements logical, the pacing sharp and even. I can never tell how revised the Constitutional protections are in Eve’s world, because they don’t always conform to current versions of the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments, so there are things during the evidence gathering, interrogation, and charging stages of the investigation that I just choose to ignore. And although I wondered at the wisdom and logic of Eve sharing her suspicions with a couple of characters, overall the investigation was the most consistently compelling aspect of the book for me, reigniting that same excitement I had during my original series glom.
What didn’t work so well for me in Strangers in Death were the parts of the story that focused Eve and Roarke’s relationship. I realize that because Eve and Roarke have been together a much shorter time than we have been reading the series that there is sometimes a disconnect between the reader’s time frame and the characters’. This is, I think, why some readers are tired of Eve’s flashbacks and the like. And the good news for those readers is that Eve doesn’t have any bad dreams in this book, nor does she get unglued by the sexual elements of the crime. That felts a bit off to me, precisely because she and Roarke have been together for a relatively short time and her emotional trauma has been portrayed as so acute. Also, while one aspect of Eve’s emotional insecurity seems to have abated, that urgent intensity between she and Roarke, the undercurrent of desperation between them, continues to be expressed strongly. And those two elements have been powerfully intertwined in the series, so to see them separate was not completely convincing to me.
I also have to admit to some reader’s fatigue of my own in regard to that relationship intensity. For example, at one point Roarke comes home to find Eve working, and — again, still — he’s bowled over by the depth of his feelings for her:
She’d taken off her jacket, tossed it over a chair, and still wore her weapon harness. Which meant she’d come in the door and straight up. Armed and dangerous, he thought. It was a look, a fact of her, that continually aroused him. And her tireless and unwavering dedication to the dead – to the truth, to what was right – had, and always would, amaze him. . .
She sensed him. He saw the moment she did, that slight change of body language. And when her eyes shifted from her comp screen to his, the cold focus became an easy, even casual warmth.
That, he thought, just that was worth coming home for.
I think that some version of this monologue has occurred at least once in every book, along with all the peaks and valleys of their lovemaking, those consistent – and dramatic – reassurances of the intensity of their physical and emotional bonds and the surprise in both of them that they really did end up happily together. Even the language feels repetitive (i.e. Roarke’s lyrically poetic face and Eve’s intoxicating whiskey eyes). I was talking to a friend about this, and she suggested that Eve and Roarke have not yet developed a lightness of being with each other, an ability to tease and take each other a little for granted. I think she’s right, and I don’t mind that in and of itself, but because some aspects of their character development in the relationship seem a bit fast-tracked while others have become somewhat repetitive, I have a hard time tuning into the relationship with the unremitting seriousness that Eve and Roarke still do.
In fact, I was incredibly relieved when they finally had a fight about two-thirds of the way through the book, because even though it was basically the same argument they have over and over (Roarke: "why can’t you trust me enough to depend on me?’ Eve: "why can’t you trust that I can take care of myself?’), it broke some of the melodramatic tension. And while I understand the vagaries of relationship evolution, sometimes it feels more like a heavy authorial hand than a natural unevenness setting the trajectory of Eve and Roarke’s relationship. Although I did chuckle with satisfaction over a reference to Magdalena (“Magdabitch” as Eve refers to her) that played nicely into the plot at one point.
Readers sometimes complain that secondary characters have become gratuitously planted in these books, and for the most part I didn’t feel that way here. Trina got a reference but no personal appearance. Louise and Charles came on scene in a way that was actually relevant to Eve’s investigation, and both Summerset and Mavis were present and accounted for but minimally obnoxious. I do have one quibble, though, which is that I’m starting to miss some of the more futuristic aspects of the series. When was the last time Eve and Roarke took a HoloTrip? Why isn’t Eve beating traffic with a patrol car capable of going vertical? I enjoyed those touches, and I think a number of them have fallen away.
When contemplating a grade for this book, I realized how divergent my reactions to the police procedural and relationship aspects of the book were. When Eve was in the groove of working, I was completely engaged in the novel, and when she and Roarke were in relationship mode, I vacillated between boredom and frustration. So in the end I decided to split that difference, awarding the procedural aspects of the book a B+ and the relationship parts a C. I have no idea how that averages out, but in the same way I couldn’t reconcile the different aspects of the book, I have no interest in trying to do so with the grades.