Reading: Strangers

Stayed up ’til 2 in the morning finishing J. D. Robb’s Strangers in Death, so I may as well admit it was a good story. The plot is borrowed from an old Hitchcock movie, but Robb (Nora Roberts in real life) has the good grace to admit it.

About halfway through the book, police detective Eve Dallas figures out who done it, and of course her gut instinct is on the money. The tricky bit is getting enough evidence to nail the ingenious killer’s hide to the wall.

The packing material, which is plentiful, is less satisfying than the story. Robb is writing exclusively for women: There are at least four long, steamy scenes (one in a swimming pool) in which Eve has enormously satisfying sex with her husband. Male genitalia are referred to again and again and again, in a variety of contexts, including castration with a carving knife. We might imagine the howls of protest from feminists if a male author wrote about women’s anatomy for a male readership with such unabashed gusto.

Eve’s husband is straight out of a romance comic book. He’s phenomenally good looking, extremely rich, macho enough to scare off muggers, sensitive to Eve’s every mood, and — for dessert — an expert computer geek who cheerfully pitches in to help her solve her cases.

The main characters are all more or less romance staples. Most of the men are rich and good-looking (though not as rich or good-looking as Eve’s husband). The women, likewise, tend to be rich, good-looking, and virtuous, except for the murderers, who are suitably creepy. There are two virtuous poor women. One bakes Eve a lemon meringue pie, the other is a hooker who is turning tricks to pay for her daughter’s ice-skating lessons.

Let’s just say Robb’s moral universe is not extremely nuanced, and leave it at that.

The Eve Dallas books, of which there seem to be quite a number, are nominally set in the future — 2060 or thereabouts. But science fiction writers have nothing to fear. Robb isn’t even trying to write SF. Except for a couple of androids stacked in a closet and the notion that the killer will be sent to a prison “off-planet,” the whole book could have been set in today’s world by using a word processor to search-and-replace “link” with “cell phone” and “glide” with “escalator.”

As a sometime SF writer myself, I’m a bit offended by this, but I think Roberts has made a smart marketing move. Mysteries sell better than SF, and the average mystery reader would undoubtedly be baffled by half a dozen elements that SF readers not only take for granted but demand. The future is just another exotic setting to Robb’s mystery fans. It’s entirely on a par with Ellis Peters’s Medieval monastery and Lindsey Davis’s Rome, though not as well fleshed out as either of them.

The main reason I’m reading books like Strangers in Death is not, in any case, for the unalloyed pleasure that it affords; I’m researching the marketing decisions various authors are making. Robb’s decisions (cross-breed the police procedural with the explicit romance novel, stake your claim to an exotic setting that no one has used yet) are entirely sensible.

And on the bright side, there are no vampires.

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