As I’m sure you’ve noticed by now, I have a real love/hate relationship with continuing series. I adore them more than words can say, and I hate it when a favorite series jumps the shark. I don’t believe every book needs a sequel, I don’t believe every character needs to be expanded into his or her own full-fledged novel, but I do believe that authors should have the grace, dignity, and, well, objectiveness to stop a series at the right time.
I’m also sure that you’ve noticed that even when I swear off a series, I sometimes relapse. For me, breaking up really is hard to do, and sometimes I realize that it wasn’t the series, it was me. Like when I thought I was done with the J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts – the secret was poorly kept to begin with, and that’s clearly Nora looking mad, bad, and dangerous on the back covers of recent books) “In Death” series.
If I recall correctly (and, really, who is going to contradict me?), I decided to break up with this series before I resented it and everything little thing about it. Then I was home for Thanksgiving and I’d forgotten to pack a spare book. So, being a good daughter, I stole the latest “In Deaths” from my mother. Read them, thought “These are good”, had some issues with editing, but I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t. Then Mom brought Born In Death when she dropped by for Christmas. We are indeed a great family.
“I know you like these,” she said. True. I do like this series. So much so that I’m going to explain why. Sit tight while I get through the obligatory synopsis for those who want only that and don’t care for my habit of accidentally reveal juicy details (I’m assuming most of you know the basic story already). In this installment, Eve Dallas is investigating the murders of a young, madly in love couple who were playing detective after stumbling across an apparent crime. In the meantime, Eve’s best friend Mavis is, like, so ready to pop out a baby that I, the hapless reader, was holding my breath, hoping I wouldn’t have assist with the delivery. Due to the overflowing hormones, Eve simply can’t say no when Mavis puts her on the spot and begs her to find another missing pregnant woman.
Yes, kids, as suggested by the title, this is a book teeming with imminent babies. You know how I feel about babies in romance novels. Sure, the “In Death” series isn’t technically romance, but that’s just quibbling. Eve and her husband Roarke may be one of the best couples in romance fiction of the past decade. And they just keep getting better. Most romance novels leave off just as a couple begins their happily-ever-after. The “In Death” series is an exploration of marriage, the ups, the downs, the constant negotiations, heck, even the egos. The romance comes as Eve and Roarke work through their personal issues to become a solid couple even as they remain individuals.
So anyway, we have this dead couple – nice people, everyone liked them. Eve’s job is to find out who murdered them and why. We also have a woman who has been, it is determined, kidnapped. I should also note that this series is set in the future – circa 2060. The world is different enough to allow the author to make up new rules while familiar enough that readers don’t have to spend overmuch time trying to figure out those same rules. The good news is that sleuthing has become a highly sophisticated process, even as motive remain old-fashioned.
The way this series has evolved, solving murders involves not only Eve, but also her partner Peabody, Peabody’s boyfriend, e-detective Ian McNab, Eve’s former partner Feeney (seen mostly as a grumpy dude trying to catch a football game on the screen), various and sundry other players, and Roarke. In the beginning, Roarke, formerly not such a law-abiding dude but now mostly on the up-and-up, was dragged in as an under-the-table resource. Now he’s a full-fledged member of the team, a consultant, which makes me very happy. See, the whole pretense of asking for Roarke’s assistance was wearying. You knew it was going to happen, and going through the motions was just silly. Robb/Roberts did a great thing when she stopped playing that game. Everyone brings a particular skill-set to the mix.
Working dual crimes strains Eve’s abilities. Both she and Roarke are workaholics, and running on two or three hours of sleep suits them mostly just fine. But sometimes, even superheroes like Eve Dallas can be too scattered. Part of the charm of suspense fiction is the plodding through clues and making just the right connections. Eve’s attention is trifurcated (murder, kidnapping, being baby coach), and sometimes I felt like the story was losing focus. Then, just as I thought they were working too hard on the missing pregnant chick, they’d switch gears and plow through murder-related clues.
Juggling two apparently unrelated crimes is a tough thing for any author (much less character) and it’s not much of surprise to learn that Robb/Roberts took the easy way out when it came to resolving the murders and kidnapping. You know what I mean. Still, I maintain that the key to these novels is the character development. You learn new things each time you pick up a new book. This mystery requires combing through accounting records, and, like Eve, most people grow comatose when it comes to debits and credits. Roarke, naturally, finds them fascinating. You knew he was a man of uncommon good sense, right? I mean, debits and credits are so coo—
Sorry, private moment.
With each novel, the team becomes more cohesive. Players are added judiciously – Baxter here, Trueheart there – but Robb/Roberts (yeah, I need to decide what to call this author, but the Robb voice differs just enough from the Roberts voice that this is tough for me) doesn’t overwhelm the books with backstory or the deadly urge to be fair and balanced with her characters. For example, Mira, ace psychiatrist and profiler, is largely on the periphery in this episode, but you feel her presence and don’t resent the fact that she’s pretty much sidelined.
What Robb/Roberts is creating with this series is an extended family. Players from previous books flit in and out, participating in the story in ways that logically fit their roles. As with any family, the relationships shift over time. You don’t have to read each book to grasp relationships, however. Just as Robb/Roberts doesn’t overwhelm the reader with too much backstory, she also provides sufficient context to orient the reader.
For example, you pretty much know from moment one that Mavis is seriously pregnant, madly in love with Leonardo, her partner, and one person Eve will do anything for. Including attending birthing classes. You gotta be, like, best friends forever and ever for that. And this where the series really shines for me. It’s the babies, or rather how Robb/Roberts handles the babies.
As we all know, in romance fiction, the imminent arrival of another human life is something along the lines of a miracle (how or why birth is considered miraculous, I do not know, considering that it’s almost always successful; I won’t get into the notion that pregnancy is rarely a miracle…this is not a political rant). If you read enough romance, you begin to believe that, well, the whole family planning thing is grounded in fantasy. Nobody ever says they’re not ready to have kids, nobody freaks out at the thought of carrying the equivalent of a basketball inside their body for months, nobody says the birth process is anything but a beautiful, magical moment. Heaven forbid you consider the financial or emotional impact of a third or fourth or whatever person in the household.
Except Eve and Roarke. They aren’t ready to have kids – aren’t even sure they’ll ever be ready – and the entire baby circus is beyond them. One of my favorite moments in this book is when they’re having a frank discussion about the fact that kids are way off in the future. Just as things are settled, Roarke casually mentions that he’s thinking five or six kids would be good – and he does it just to see the look of horror on Eve’s face. That he revels in her agony is pure fun for me.
As they’re solving the murder and kidnapping mysteries, Eve and Roarke are also dealing with the fact that starting a family is a next logical step in their marriage. They’re also realizing that they’re young and busy and not quite ready to make that level of commitment. If only more romance novel characters would think this way. How many relationships founded on flimsy circumstances yet ending in glowing pregnancies must we endure before this fictional world acknowledges that couples can be happy, healthy, and whole without the inevitable birth of twins to cement the deal?
Sorry, did I get off topic? Born In Death is not the tightest mystery I’ve ever read. The accounting stuff could have been clearer for those who don’t (or pretend they don’t) account. Yeah, me. I felt like the actual murder piece of the story got short shrift due to the kidnapping plotline. And I though Roarke and Eve’s anger when it was suggested that there might be conflict of interest in a case where a major wheeler and dealer in the business world could potentially access sensitive financial data of his competition. I mean, c’mon, they both overreacted when their integrity was (sort of) questioned. Made them both human, yes, but also a bit naïve.
Is the “In Death” series still viable? Absolutely. Would I recommend that you (Wendy, for example) start with book one, but don’t do a back-to-back-to-back glom, maybe taking a break here and there? Absolutely. Will I be stealing the next book from my mother because she’s clearly weaker than I am and willing to shell out for hardcover? Should go without saying, but absolutely. Do I feel this makes me a pathetic daughter without pride? Nope.
You can find J.D. Robb/Nora Roberts here. You can buy Born In Death here or here. You can offer your own opinions on this book or the series below.