Sep 6 2013
We Will Roarke You – Naked in Death by J.D. Robb
Naked in Death is the first J.D. Robb book I’ve read but the second Nora Roberts. I was thrown for a bit of a loop going in, because I hadn’t actually picked up on the fact that it was science fiction, so I spent about the first chapter going “hang on, why is she talking to all her electrical appliances? Are far more things voice activated in America than in England? Was this some kind of fad in the 1990s?”
So anyway, this book is about a hard bitten, emotionally closed-off cop called Eve Dallas and an enigmatic, surnameless billionaire called Roarke. It’s also about a lot of nasty violent murders. There’s also quite a lot of sexual abuse stuff later on, and I’ll be talking about all of these things in some detail so as always please bear in mind that this review might include spoilers and/or references to triggering material.
So anyway, it is the year … something. Like with Driven I’m a bit unclear when this story actually takes place, but there seems to be some suggestion that the twentieth century might conceivably be in living memory (although people also seem to be living a lot longer now) so my guess is that it’s late 2000s, early 2100s. The world has changed quite a lot in some ways, although as with most science fiction written in the last century, there are some slightly jarring omissions – like the fact that data is still stored on “discs” and that computers still clunk and whir like a dialup internet connection.
One of the things that has changed in the future is that prostitution is now legal, and guns are now banned. Never the less, the story opens with a (licensed) prostitute being found dead with three bullet holes in her. It turns out that this woman is in fact Sharon DeBlass, daughter of Senator DeBlass, which makes the whole investigation rather more complicated. Despite the fact that the victim was murdered with an antique weapon of a variety that is no longer even manufactured, and lived in a high security building, and actually had sex with the man who killed her, there is never the less no real evidence pointing to anybody.
This means that Eve’s only lead – and it isn’t much of one – is that the last person to see Sharon alive (apart from the killer) was the mononymic mystery man Roarke. Who also owns the building she lived in (and the building the heroine lives in, this seems to be a feature of billionaire heroes, they basically own every location you go to in the book). And who also has a collection of antique guns. Eve is struck by Roarke’s looks the moment she prints off his file from whatever central computer system the police are using in the future, and when they meet at Sharon’s funeral they feel an instant and (to me) inexplicable connection.
I really wanted to like Roarke. I’d heard good things about him, and to give him his due, he’s somewhat less of a dickbasket than a lot of the other alpha heroes I’ve read so far. I mean, he still doesn’t let the heroine just get on with her damned job, but he’s nowhere near as controlling as this sort of character often is, and he seems more or less willing to give Eve her headspace. On the other hand he had one or two traits which pushed a couple of my buttons, particularly his self-consciously “old fashioned” attitudes. Now maybe this is going to be a plot point, and he’s going to turn out, in a later volume, to be a genetically engineered supersoldier from 1953, but it just rubbed me up the wrong way. In a book that was fairly specifically set in a future society where a lot of progress had been made on a huge number of social issues (I’m not taking a particularly heavy stance on gun control here, but it seems fairly explicit in the book that they’re now living in a world with greater social equality and less crime) it seemed bizarre and infuriating to me that a guy self-defining as having old-fashioned ideas should be anything other than deeply unattractive.
I think Roarke’s good sort of old-fashionedness is supposed to juxtapose with the bad sort of old-fashionedness displayed by the villains, both the misogynistic prostitute-murdering serial killer (who we are consistently told is committing “twentieth-century crimes, with twentieth-century motives”) and the first victim’s grandfather – the arch-conservative Senator DeBlass. But they just struck me as being the same thing in very slightly different hats.
For example, part of Roarke’s old-fashioned way of looking at things is that he feels very strongly about violence against women. This would be great if it was grounded in a progressive and nuanced understanding of the broader cultural implications of gendered violence and the ways in which violence against women is often normalised or sexualised by society but it, well, isn’t. He just doesn’t hit girls.
There’s a scene which particularly rubs me up the wrong way at about the 70% mark in which the heroine, having had an argument with Roarke because he was upset that she called him in for questioning in the murder investigation which she was conducting, and in which he was a suspect, punches him in the head. He responds thus:
“Go ahead,” he invited. “Take another shot. You needn’t worry. I don’t hit women – or murder them.” (p. 189).
I think this is supposed to be … I don’t know, reassuring? Possibly even respectful? But to me this reads like he’s saying “Take another shot. Because I do not seriously believe you, or any member of your sex could conceivably pose a physical threat to me.”
It reminds me a lot of the attitude you get in Dashiell Hammett – Hammett is really down on hitting women, but if you read The Maltese Falcon or Red Harvest, it’s fairly clear that the reason he’s so down on it is that hitting a woman means treating her as an equal. In Hammett’s world you shouldn’t have to hit a woman to establish your superiority over her, because it should already be a given. Smacking a woman is giving her ideas above her station.
Eve very nearly calls him out on this in an earlier scene, which goes like this (for context, Eve has just outlined the reasons that Roarke is a plausible suspect, and Roarke is explaining why he isn’t one):
“I have what you might consider an old-fashioned quirk. I dislike brutalizing women, in any form.”
“It’s old-fashioned in that it would be more apt to say you dislike brutalizing people, in any form.”
The thing is, Eve is exactly right here. But I couldn’t shake the notion that we were supposed to, if not agree with Roarke, at least find his “old fashioned quirk” secretly admirable. Certainly, I think we were supposed to count it as an indication that he wasn’t the murderer rather than an indication that he is in fact quite likely to be the murderer (people who have strict rules about the way you’re supposed to behave towards women tend to also have quite strict rules about the way women are supposed to behave, and they tend not to like it when those rules get broken as they are by, say, prostitutes).
I think the other thing that made it hard for me to get behind Roarke as a hero is that a lot of the time he felt like he’d been parachuted in from a different novel. Everybody seems to have heard of him, but nobody knows anything about him beyond the same small amount of public domain information (some of which feels like it should be more private than it is, like the fact that he has a background in petty crime). Even his close friends don’t really know who he is or where he comes from, and everybody’s opinion about him seems to sort of reflect the same basic party line – hot, enigmatic, awesome billionaire guy. It almost feels like he’s not so much a person who lives in their world as a character in a book that they all happen to have read.
I vaguely understand that Eve and Roarke are the co-protagonists of the whole of the In Death series (which, looking it up on Wikipedia, seems to be really fricking long), so I appreciate that there’s a lot of setting up to do, but I felt like the book was pushing Roarke really hard, to the point where I felt he kind of overshadowed Eve and the actual serial killer plot. There are two separate occasions on which different characters (first Eve, then Sharon DeBlass’ parents, Roarke’s close friends) observe not only that Roarke couldn’t possibly have murdered Sharon or the other women, but also that he absolutely could murder people under different circumstances. It’s like they’re going “it’s okay, the guy you’re supposed to fancy definitely isn’t the killer, but don’t worry, that doesn’t mean he isn’t a badass. It’s just that he can only kill people in sexy ways.”
Because I found Roarke so difficult and so overpowering, I didn’t really get much of a sense of Eve as a character. I appreciate that this is a series, so you can afford to take a bit more time with your character development, and that Eve is quite an emotionally closed-off person for much of the text, but I just couldn’t really get a handle on her. I understood that she was sort of into order and justice pretty much on principle, and that she was totally hot for Roarke, but I didn’t get much sense of her beyond that. I mean, I know you find out quite a lot about her personal history as well, but it never really came together to give me a real sense of who she was.
Even more of a problem for me was that I also didn’t get much of a sense of her being good at her job. I’m just about willing to give her a pass on “having sex with the guy who is basically your only suspect” although I’m afraid that did have me shouting “you are being grossly unprofessional” into my Kindle. What I’m less able to reconcile is the fact that she basically doesn’t actually solve the murders at all. Or even make that much progress towards solving them before the solution dropped into here lap.
I think part of this was just a bit of an expectation clash. The last Norah Roberts I read (and I do appreciate that this is J.D. Robb, not Norah Roberts, and that a big part of the reason for writing them under different names is that they’re very different sorts of book) had a very low-key romance arc that was integrated very well into the much more significant catch-the-mad-arsonist plot. Naked in Death is very much the other way around, with the murders seeming to serve primarily as a way to introduce Eve to Roarke and the reader to Robb’s fictional future.
The way things are set up, with a seemingly military-trained killer committing crimes which leave no physical evidence whatsoever and the entire political and police establishment stymieing the investigation at every turn, there winds up being literally no way for Eve to make any progress at all on the case. She finally works out who the killer is only when somebody literally calls her up and tells her. An event which could perfectly well have happened at any time.
I should probably say that I’m being a bit harsh on Eve here. She does manage to track down Sharon’s diaries, and she does spot a crucial piece of evidence in the videos the killer sends her (although she dismisses it because her computer determines that her conclusions have a low probability of being correct). But I never really got the sense that she was closing in on the killer. She also (with Roarke’s help) uncovers the corruption of a high ranking member of the police force, but again this isn’t related to the case except tangentially.
It’s at around about this point that I’m going to want to start talking about the identity of the murderer, so this is going to get spoilery and if you don’t want to be spoilered, stop reading. It’s also where the abuse stuff kicks in so, again, if you’d rather avoid that skip the rest of this article.
So anyway, it turns out that the killer is … basically the only person it could have been. More specifically, the killer is a combination of Sharon DeBlass’ grandfather the Senator, and his aide (who we were told fairly early on had known paramilitary connections, but who apparently the police didn’t think it was worth looking into even though they strongly suspect that the killer has, umm … paramilitary training). It turns out that the Senator sexually abused both his daughter, Congresswoman Catherine DeBlass and his granddaughter Sharon. There’s a reasonably strong implication that this is what led to Sharon going into the sex trade in the first place, and while the book makes some attempt to present this as a positive, empowering decision, it still made me a little uncomfortable, since I generally try to avoid assuming that women’s sexual behaviour is dictated by their past trauma.
It turns out that Sharon was running a highly lucrative blackmail enterprise on the side, and that one of the people she was blackmailing was her grandfather. Although confusingly the terms of this blackmail were … umm … that he would pay her five thousand dollars a week to have sex with her. I can sort of see where this is coming from. As I’ve said rather a lot recently, it isn’t my place to police people’s reactions to their abuse experiences, and I can just about see that if somebody did sexually abuse you, and you did become a sex worker, it might be therapeutic have them as a client, in that you’d be sort of changing things up so that they were screwing you on your terms rather than theirs. And I sort of get that because Senator DeBlass was so ultraconservative she might have taken a kind of pleasure in confronting him with his own hypocrisy. But at the same time … dude.
I think the thing that niggles at me just a little is the fact that it feels a bit like a visit from the misdirection fairy – that little magic pixie that visits mystery plots and makes people behave in bizarre and out-of-character ways so the audience doesn’t work out what’s really going on. The basic reason that I didn’t think it was the senator from the outset was that the killer caught the murder on tape, and the way Sharon behaves in the video didn’t strike me as the kind of way you would behave towards the abusive grandfather you hate. A problem I often have with mystery plots (and this extends far beyond Romance) is that they frequently feel like they were – for want of a better term – written from both ends at once. That is to say, like the writer came up with a setup (high class prostitute from wealthy political family murdered by client) and a solution (killer turns out to be abusive grandfather) and then tried to make them meet up in the middle, which leads to a lot of slightly wobbly seams where the two plots connect (in this case with the rationale leading to the victim accepting her abusive grandfather as a client).
I was also bothered by how spooky perfect the killer wound up being. It turns out that all of the murders after the first (which was sort of an accident) were carried out by the Senator’s aide – an ex-paramilitary type who suggests to the Senator that the best way to cover up his granddaughter’s death is to use the tried and tested “pretend it’s a serial killer” strategy. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this plan in a whole bunch of sources, although I first remember seeing it in the 1998 BBC series In the Red, in which the murders of a string of bank managers turn out to be a smokescreen thrown up by a guy who wants to kill his bank manager brother.
Anyway, I understand that the killer is ex paramilitary, and can therefore be expected to have a certain amount of training. But can he really, truly be expected to know how to remove absolutely all traces of his presence from the scene of a crime? To break through any security system, no matter how sophisticated? And I get that he also has political protection but I sort of felt that the investigation was artificially stalled at the beginning (by positing a nigh-supernaturally efficient killer who covered his tracks flawlessly, leaving the police with literally nothing to go on) and then artificially accelerated at the end (with Catherine coming forward, the diary showing up, and everybody conveniently confessing despite the fact that there was basically no solid proof against any of them).
As is so often the case, I do wonder how much of my trouble here is to do with this being the first book in a series. There’s clearly a lot to establish and since Roarke is the hero of forty-eight books and counting there’s an extent to which, narratively speaking, he really is more important than the actual case. And strangely having read the first book there is a little part of me that would be interested to see where things go from here, since if nothing else I’m kind of a sucker for endless series of procedurals.
Everything I learned about life and love from reading Naked in Death: The future will have flying cars, but not cloud storage or USB drives. The funerals of murder victims are great places to pull. It’s okay to shag the prime suspect in the murder you’re investigating if his mates say he didn’t do it. Twenty-first century birth control techniques will thwart forensic science.