I look forward to a new In Death novel from J.D. Robb twice a year. Early on I felt the same about her holiday offerings (“Midnight in Death,” “Interlude in Death”), but if I had the chance to talk to her, I’d say this:
“Nora, somehow you keep Eve, Roarke, and all the gang fresh, but please, stop the November short stories already.”
If I were feeling particularly impertinent, I’d ask what I really want to know:
“Nora, do you participate in those November anthologies with some of your close—and lesser known—author friends as kind of a Christmas gift to them because you know your In Death readers will buy the book and and they can hang off your coat tails?”
Here’s why I’d ask: I think she’s phoning it in with most of those short stories, at least most of the recent ones, and in comparison with her full-length In Death offerings. It begs the question: Why bother with a ho-hum short story with an otherwise already full writing schedule?
Though not all of the In Death novels published in recent years were among her best, with the exception of Kindred in Death (2009), they’ve been pretty good. I loved Promises in Death (2009), and Treachery in Death (2011) was nearly as strong. The most recent, Celebrity in Death was a good, solid B, as were Fantasy in Death (2010) and New York to Dallas (2011). Rather than going year by year, title by title, let me sum up: Seven books in the In Death series are among my all-time keepers and another nine come thisclose. That’s what, nearly half the series to date? There are only two books in the series that I don’t recommend...just two...Kindred and Remember When.
Compare that with my reactions to her In Death short stories. So far eight have been published, five in the last five years. The three most recent, including last year’s “Chaos in Death,” were just average, and her 2006 offering—“Haunted in Death”—was average as well. Which means half of her short stories were meh.
The In Death series succeeds because the kick-ass, single-minded Lt. Eve Dallas and her bazillionaire and astoundingly gorgeous Irish husband Roarke are complex and intriguing characters as well as the most iconic and sexy couple in modern romance. Both remain works in progress, and Eve Becoming a Human Being is a constant theme throughout the series. Instead of stereotypical secondary characters who simply fill out a scene, Robb’s large coterie of secondaries are colorful and unique, and their growth is not left unattended.
When I read an In Death book, I look forward to whatever Robb plans for Eve and Roarke’s marriage; sparring, loving, quipping, fighting, and caring. But I also look forward to Eve’s slow burns when Peabody talks about All Things Girlie, or about that morning when McNab rubbed up against her. I can’t wait to discover what color ensemble Dr. Mira is wearing when she meets with Eve, and enjoy Eve’s dad-like crush on the good doctor’s sweet-natured husband Dennis. Then there’s the ladies’ man detective, Baxter, doing a fine job mentoring the innocent Trueheart, the interactions between Eve and her spit-polish boss, Commander Whitney, as well as every single moment between Eve and/or Roarke and their Garfield-like cat, Galahad. I crave Eve’s quiet moments with the very zen Chief Medical Examiner Morris, and how she invariably turns up her nose at the obnoxious, egg-head shaped Chief Lab Tech Dickie Berenski.
Some of the characters I just mentioned are important secondaries. Others remain critical but have less screen time, while another group exists more around the periphery. Regardless, all are well described, with characteristics so distinct I can easily picture them in my mind, just as I can easily imagine the look, feel, and kinda disgusting smell of the Detectives’ Room and Eve’s office while wondering just who in the hell is stealing her chocolate no matter where she hides it. Oh, and asking myself how the hell can they drink that swill they call coffee.
I read an In Death book not just for Eve and Roarke, but for all that, and more, including the procedural aspect, which frames each story—but assumes greater or less importance, depending upon the book. No doubt many readers, likely including most of the series’ male fans, read the series for the procedural component. Not me; I need the romance, the characters, and the growth.
I actually stayed away from the series for years because the procedural aspect held little appeal, and if any book needed two kisses of death, they would surely be “romantic suspense” and “futuristic.” I relented only when Cheryl Sneed, my fellow H&H blogger and the Queen of Historical Romance, recommended it.
I fell in love with In Death because the novels are so much more than mainstream thrillers, which I don’t generally like because of one-note characters, clunky storytelling, and plots so byzantine I cannot follow them. Robb’s strong romance underpinning allows her to craft thrillers intricate on their own, but intricate also in how they weave the procedural with the personal, the emotional, the romantic.
All of that is possible within a story with an extensive word count. Short story word count constraints necessarily limit what can be accomplished. Robb moves crime solving to the forefront in her short stories, and with the built-in futuristic setting, there’s little room for the emotional and the personal—including romance. I felt, for instance, that last year’s “Chaos in Death,” from the Unquiet anthology, seemed to have been written with a checklist aside it, so the author could mark off second- and third-level characters. One of my separated at birth online friends agreed; after my goodreads mini-review she wrote that it seemed “written by the numbers.”
Not all of the In Death shorts have this rote feel; the first, “Midnight in Death,” from the Silent Night anthology, comes to mind. In this short story, Lt. Eve Dallas must find an escaped killer she once put away, He recently escaped from a prison off-planet, with plans to do away with all of those involved in his incarceration. With a limited word count, Robb ably captured the murderer’s depravity, the personalities of the series’ players, all while maintaining the chemistry between Eve and her husband Roarke, and finding space for the sly wit she writes in the full-length books. At one point after Roarke has helped Eve in her work, Eve “hisses out a breath [and says] ’It’s ridiculous’”, to which Roarke responds, “What?” Eve answers, “How good a cop you’d make.” Roarke’s response is classic within the series’ context: “I don’t think insulting me is appropriate under the circumstances.”
What I liked so well in “Midnight in Death” is precisely what I found lacking in one of the more recent In Death shorts, “Possession in Death” (2010). I found the lack of interplay between Eve and her intimate circle of friends, as well as her failure to exploit the push me/pull you connection between Eve as cop and Roarke as ex-criminal caused the book to fall relatively flat for me (my entire commentary is at my own blog).
How I wish I weren’t the type of reader who feels compelled to read a series in its entirety, particularly after three ho-hum stories in three consecutive years! It’s bad enough the short stories are meh, it’s worse that I have to buy an entire book for one ho-hum story. At this point I wish Eve and Roarke took a short story sabbatical. It would save me eight bucks and a couple of hours worth of disappointment. What about you?
Laurie Gold cannot stop reading and writing about romance—she’s been blabbing online for years. She remains a work in progress. Keep up with her on goodreads, be one of the few who visits her at Toe in the Water or follow her may-be-too-political-for-you tweets at @laurie_gold.