A couple of years ago on one of the lists there was a long discussion about Nora Roberts' J.D. Robb books. There were some readers who, having read and enjoyed Roberts' romantic suspense, picked up the Robb books and were turned off by their dark, depressing character and – let's be frank – the violent and vile nature of the crimes depicted. Needless to say, there was a lively debate on the subject. The key point made by fans of the Robb books was that Roberts had purposely chosen not to publish these works under her own name because she herself recognized that they are not your typical romance.
I wish I had kept my contribution to the debate because it would make writing this review and explaining why Conspiracy in Death is a keeper for me. Instead, I must try to reconstruct my argument about what makes these books so impressive.
Robb has set her stories some sixty years in the future, in a world that is eerily plausible and uniformly frightening. It is a world where science has achieved great things. Human beings live well into their 100s. People travel much more rapidly above the city streets and from city to city. There are settlements "off planet" where resources are extracted and where visitors can enjoy the ultimate in travel excitement. Droids are available to do much of the unpleasant work of society. Computers provide information instantly and communications by voice and picture are commonplace. Virtual reality allows one to enjoy the beach or the mountains or whatever without leaving one's living room.
But it is also a world where the differences between the rich and the poor are even more pronounced than they are today. Where every imaginable kind of sexual act is accepted and performed by Licensed Companions. Where recreational drug use is commonplace and where "illegals" do horrible things to the human mind and soul. Where the concept of privacy has almost disappeared. Where the depletion of natural resources means that only the rich can afford real coffee or real meat or real vegetables. It is a world where everything, including most human emotion, is ersatz. In short, is a totally believable world of the future.
Into this dark and dangerous world, Robb has introduced two of her finest creations, New York Police Lieutenant Eve Dallas and the mysterious tycoon Roark, the richest man in the world. This unlikely pair met in the first book, married in the third, and now are settling into a most unusual relationship. They love each other fiercely, need each other completely, and enjoy each other immensely. But, because of Eve's job, a job to which she is totally devoted and from which she derives much of her sense of self, the couple can never escape the dark side of this dark world.
Conspiracy in Death begins when Eve is called to the site of a murder. In the ordinary course of events, the death of Snooks, an indigent street person, would pass almost unnoticed. But there is something unusual about this corpse: his heart is missing. Not only is it missing, but it has been removed with surgical precision by someone
who is clearly a very talented surgeon. Why would anyone want a diseased heart, especially when excellent artificial models are readily available?
In her determined quest to get justice for the victim (so that she can reassure the victim within her own psyche), Eve discovers a conspiracy that leads her into the heart of the medical profession and into the corridors of political power. Her refusal to abandon her search for those who have been preying on the dispossessed and the disadvantaged
threatens the very career that means so much to her.
Berkley has labeled Conspiracy in Death "Romantic Suspense," but this is something of a misnomer. A "romance" usually centers on the hero and heroine finding each other and establishing a relationship. The Robb books do something very different, but something that is very rewarding. They allow us to watch the relationship between Eve and Roark develop and grow. Robb does a masterful job of showing us
how these two people, so different and yet in some ways so similar, discover how much their love means to them and how it enriches their lives.
Eve and Roark have to be two of the greatest creations in contemporary romantic suspense. But Robb has also created a wonderful cast of secondary characters, all of whom come to life in her talented hands. Likewise, she draws with a sure and telling brush the eternal realities of human behavior.
I have said it before and I'll say it again. I stand in absolute awe of Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb's talent. Not merely of her ability to bring a character to life or her skill with dialogue or her sensuous love scenes or her ability to describe a place or entire world, but of her ability to get into the minds and souls of her characters, of her understanding
of human nature, its good, its bad and its ugly.
Yes, the world she creates in the Robb books is not a particularly pleasant place. It is dark and depressing and scary. But Robb never lets her readers forget that in this darkness there are beacons of light; there is honor, there is friendship, there is compassion, and, above all, there is love. Which is why Conspiracy in Death will join all the other Robb books on my keeper shelf.