Purity In Death

Triple Threat

Purity in Death by J. D. Robb

Penquin Group USA, 2002, 368 pp, $7.98

Origin in Death by J. D. Robb

Penquin Group USA, 2006, 384 pp, $7.98

Fantasy in Death by J. D. Robb

Penquin Group USA, 2010, 368 pp, $7.98

Science fiction is not precisely a closed shop, but it does closely resemble a club. Newcomers are measured by how well they adhere to certain conventions. On  the one hand, readers cherish novelty, the “what if” factor and the “gee whiz” moment. We love to be dazzled. On the other hand, we tend to be a well-educated and cynical lot, incredulous of extreme claims, with a very, very, very keen awareness of the difference between science fiction and fantasy. We tend to be well read and well educated, as we must in a field that attracts real scientists as both readers and writers. A new author, therefore, winds up scrutinized not only on her ability to hold our imaginations with good prose, but with the ability to convince us of the plausibility of that which does not (yet) exist.

Comes now into this tightly-knit community of cynics a towering giant from another field. Nora Roberts has been outselling whole schools of literature over the past few decades; she is the undisputed reigning queen of the romance best-seller. She earns this title honestly, with solid characters, good prose, and witty dialog. Her heroines do not cling, her heroes do not condescend. The romance in her novels, while primary, is usually part of a larger story – a murder mystery, a treasure hunt, a medieval romance. She often incorporates fantasy into her novels; many of them are based in Irish or other Celtic legends and culture, weaving classic fantasy tropes with a modern sensibility.

Apparently, being the Queen of Romance is not enough. Back in the mid-Nineties, Roberts started writing futuristic sci-fi under the name of J. D. Robb. As of this writing, she’s up to 42 books or short stories in this series, which features Lieutenant Eve Dallas of the New York Police and Security Department, circa 2059. A tough, hard-boiled cop with a passion for both justice and her incredibly hot and wealthy husband Roarke, Eve chases down murderers ranging from crafty serial killers to liquor-store holdup men who kill the clerk.  

I have to respect anyone with guts enough to juggle three different genres at once: romance, police procedural, and science fiction. Roberts long ago retired the trophy for romance writing, and as J. D. Robb her police procedure is as good as any I’ve seen. But when she steps into the sci-fi world, she stumbles. All too often, she refers to some “futuristic” component of her world that is actually way out of date, such as Eve Dallas’ constant use of computer discs. Most major computer manufacturers stopped making computers with floppy drives a decade ago. There are droids and laser (ray) guns, both of which were “new” before Nora Roberts was even born. Robb’s idea of futuristic technology is to file the serial numbers off of contemporary (or even obsolete) technology and paint it in what she imagines is jargon. In a community where real scientists like Isaac Asimov, Greg Bear and Arthur C. Clarke set the standard, however, this all too often comes across as Star Trek technobabble; that is to say, magic hiding under a lab coat.  While all the In Death books are set in the future, and all of them use standard SF tropes, most of them are really police procedurals with a couple of robots thrown in. Here, I’ll review three books that focus more heavily than others in the series on the science fiction rather than the police procedural or the romance.

Purity in Death starts with a drug dealer’s sudden psychotic break during a sizzling heat wave in New York. Eve’s investigation soon reveals that Louie Cogburn was working on his computer shortly before he lost his mind; the autopsy reveals a grossly swollen brain that the ME cannot explain. More sudden bouts of homicidal mania occur, all linked to computer use.  It does not take long for everyone involved, including the head of the very advanced Electronics Detection Division, to conclude that the victims have been infected by a computer virus. Let me say that again: human beings have been infected by a computer virus. Which is composed of electrons. The trouble is that Robb fails to look past the metaphorical use of the word “virus” to the presence of the qualifying “computer”; short of bashing someone over the head with a computer, it is impossible to kill someone with one. Nor does the sort of hand-waving Robb engages in here help to convince. Having set up this outrageous premise, she fails to supply any plausible underpinning for a murderous computer virus at all. While the vigilante villains are interesting and the police procedural is fine, Robb’s reliance on fake science in a science fiction novel seriously undercuts her heroine’s credibility.

Origin in Death revolves around the murder of a father and son team of plastic surgeons. Eve finds that the surgery is really a front for a cloning operation.  Here, Robb falls prey to the widespread yet erroneous belief that a clone would be a physical duplicate of the original, that a clone would, so to speak, look like a photocopy. There is no reason to think that identical chromosomes would express their genetic code identically; if you carry the genes for your mother’s blonde hair and your father’s black hair, you could have blonde hair yourself yet end up with a clone who had black hair. Same genes, different expression. So for Eve Dallas to base her leap-to-conclusion on the basis of facial recognition is a stretch. If I saw a grown woman who bore a strong resemblance to a child, my conclusion would be mother/child, not original/clone.  Again, Robb fails to do her homework on the futuristic aspects of her story, and then relies on Star Trekscience to prop up the story.

Fantasy in Death returns to the exploitation of scientific ignorance we saw in Purity. This time, it’s a game developer found decapitated in a locked room, who was playing a computer game at the time. Once again, a metaphor is misunderstood: Robb treats “virtual reality” as if the emphasis were on the second half of that phrase, not the first. “Virtual reality” is not reality, light does not follow the physics she lays down, and her solution to this locked-room mystery is about as implausible as fairy dust. By far the weakest of her more sci-fi oriented fare, this plot relies on a method of murder that just plain will not work. There is science fiction and then there is outright magic. Once again, Robb demonstrates that she either does not know real physics, does not care, dismisses her audience as idiots, or (and this is scary) genuinely believes in things like light sabers.  In science fiction, it is permissible, even expected, to extrapolate from what we know to what we can imagine, but the key to plausibility is to remain grounded in what we know. Robb abandons that ground from the get-go, and sacrifices her entire story to what is almost a punch line in real gaming circles.

Having pointed out the flaws, it is only fair to point out the perfections. Subtly, Robb leads us through the emotional maturation of her heroine, as Eve Dallas first discovers love, then friendship, then compassion through the course of these 42 books. The milieu in which Robb locates her stories is mostly plausible: a dystopic society recovering from a near apocalyptic war, where prostitution is legal and guns are banned, where the poor still huddle in ruined doorways while millionaires build off-world luxury resorts. The supporting cast is excellent: Detective Delia Peabody is the perfect foil, sarcastic and human; Ian McNab is the apotheosis of futuristic geek, complete with homemade slang, and Eve’s husband is sexy and sensitive. A rising video star, a suite of avant-garde designers and beauticians, and a regular cast of support personnel such as forensics techs and police brass round out the roster.  The dialogue, especially when Peabody is involved, can shine and sparkle.  When Robb restrains her hand, her sprinkling of background references to futuristic tech can enhance. I find the idea of coffee shortages and soy dogs plausible; police cars that can employ a vertical takeoff in midtown traffic, not so much.  In the grand traditions of cyberpunk literature, we learn of past urban wars, social ferment, and new technologies.  The future Eve inhabits has too much love in it for true dystopia, but compared to most romance novels this must seem like a grim outlook indeed. 

Eve herself is the classic marginalized outsider, a woman with a dark and dangerous past that gives her nightmares, a woman we might find in a novel by William Gibson or Philip K. Dick. If I were making a film of any of these novels, I would borrow heavily from Blade Runner or GATTACA.  Eve fits very uneasily into her world, even when accompanied by Roarke, whose past is as dysfunctional and violent as her own.  A long-standing critique of classic science fiction is that it emphasizes plot over character; I can say that this is definitely not the case with the Eve Dallas mysteries. If the means, motives and opportunities available to murderers fifty years down the road have changed a bit, Eve herself brings to each story a complicated and troubled, sometimes even an off-putting personality that in the end just reaches out and grabs you.  She has every virtue we relate to a Western hero: stern, humorless, moral to a fault, dismissive of the weakness of others. She resembles no one so much as a cross between Philip Marlowe and John Wayne. No matter how tempted she is to cross the line, Eve hews to the law and to her own sense of justice. Eve is at her best when she stands for the victim, even those rejected by society. She comes across as a post-modern warrior , standing for some kind of decency in a moral wasteland. If she comes across as stiff and clueless in personal relations, she’s all business and all cop when she’s on the job. She is one of the strongest characters I’ve read in a sci-fi novel. She is the best thing about these books.

As in all Nora Roberts stories, the sex is passionate but not as graphic as some of the soft-core porn passing as romance novels these days. The crimes Eve solves are often more violent, gritty and sadistic than those found in Nora Roberts’ more tame offerings; there is lots of sex, cussing, blood and mutilation, but Robb never turns it into splatter gore. All in all, if you don’t mind your science fiction light, your sex scenes described in breathless euphemisms and your futuristic cop as gritty as Philip Marlowe, the In Death series will be a satisfying, even compelling series.  I should emphasize that it is imperative to read these books in order, beginning with Naked in Death; later books will reference earlier works in such a way as to spoil the plot, and it can be disconcerting for a reader to read in one book that a character is giving birth, and in the next book that she is meeting the father of that baby.  I never expected to read all 42 books, but have found myself devouring each one, even those with serious flaws. In 42 at-bats, you can only hit so many home runs; J. D. Robb hits more than her share.