I have many guilty pleasures. Some just naughty – champagne, chocolate, red wine and so forth. Some a little weird – an early years’ fetish for Dr Spock (the one with the pointy ears, not the child-rearing guru). And some that are mostly embarrassing. Like the ridiculous pleasure I get from the TV show, ‘Murder She Wrote’ and from a series of novels by romance writer, Nora Roberts, under the pseudonym JD Robb.
I am a prolific reader and constantly running out of reading fodder. So nothing excites me more than finding a new author, whose work I find digestible, and who already has a realm of books under their belt. I am as happy as the proverbial pig in mud. No painful searches of the rarely-changing library shelves of my local library; or being driven to fork out hard-earned cash for mediocre books.
I regularly admit to a fairly prosaic taste in literature. Though I find myself balking at some crime fiction (I cannot believe I used to read Patricia Cornwell for example), I don’t mind the likes of PD James, Martha Grimes and Robert B Parker.
So… admissions and self-flagellation completed, a few years ago I borrowed a book by JD Robb. Though (obviously) by no means a literary snob, I might have bypassed the book had I realised it was written by an author better known for romance than murder and mayhem. But realise I did not. I don’t remember what that book actually was, but it was undoubtedly one from somewhere in the middle of the series, given the discovery took place in 2008 and Roberts kicked off her ‘In Death’ novels (as an experiment) in 1995.
I was entranced and literally ploughed through all existing ‘In Death’ novels over subsequent months. I tried to do so in order – given that an underlying story unfolds as a backdrop to the murderous mysteries unraveling front-stage.
I have read them all now (bar a few short stories appearing in other collections). And I have even re-read some. The series has taken its place along with some other staples (TV series’ ‘Buffy’, ‘Pushing Daisies’, ‘Entourage’ and ‘West Wing’; and Robert B Parker’s Spenser or Sunny Randall novels) which I can watch or read again and again and are a source of great comfort.
So, I wonder, what is it about these novels that endear them to me?
Though I am not a Sci Fi or fantasy genre fan, these novels are set in the future, the first kicking off in the late 2050s. In a brave new world following the ‘Urban Wars’ of the 2020s. In this world we meet New York Homicide cop, Lieutenant Eve Dallas. A strong, independent woman, (stereotypically) scarred by childhood trauma. In the first novel, ‘Naked in Death’ Eve crosses paths with the enigmatic (and if that word was coined with a character in mind, it was this one) Roarke, mega-rich and a law unto himself.
Their relationship makes the novels and (in my point of view) sometimes almost breaks them. Roberts just avoids Eve falling into some caricature of a former-victim-now-turned-saviour still tortured by her dysfunctional childhood. As a romantic (at heart) I love Roarke’s devotion to his cop/wife but there is sometimes a fine line between devotion and paternalism; and his compulsion to ‘take care’ of Eve often has me shuddering with discomfort. I mean, what is it with these people (you read about) who ‘forget to eat’ and who work to exhaustion and have to be carried off to bed by concerned loved ones? Finally, although not faint-hearted I do occasionally find the sex scenes a bit much to get through and have to skim-read the gory stuff.
But Roberts has a support cast guaranteed to complement the two leads and many of them are as familiar and dear to her readers as Eve and Roarke themselves. In fact, in many ways Eve’s sidekick – the delightful smartarse, Peabody – keeps me turning the pages as much as the two mainstays.
One of the things that sets the novels apart from the usual murder / mysteries is the futuristic themes. Technology is more advanced, certainly, and e-cops, computers and virtual reality play a key role in many of the murders. Guns have disappeared after the Urban Wars and (other than in Eve’s world) murders are few and far between.
I find myself intrigued about how Roberts interprets the future. She names her technological advances simply. Watches are ‘wrist units’. Some form of escalators that take travelers significant distances are ‘glides’. Telephones are nicknamed ‘links’ and they, along with mobile phones (‘communicators’) offer vision. Cars (and other forms of transport – which can move vertically) are ‘transpos’. All forms of makeup and beauty products are known as ‘enhancements’. ‘Droids’ are prevalent – though mostly working as maids and doormen. In this world people live well into their 100s and plastic surgery is the norm. And, in Roberts’ vision, we have settled on other planets by the middle of the 21st century.
The futuristic world and its gadgets however, do not distract the readers from the plot itself and I find most of Roberts’ ‘In Death’ series less predictable than most other crime fiction or mystery novels I read. The plots are always robust and the characters strong and multi-dimensional. Roberts has recently released her 30th ‘In Death’ novel but given how prolifically she has been churning them out over recent years, I suspect there will be many more to come. And – for now anyway – that suits me fine.