(There be mild spoilers here.)
That’s the number of full-length novels Nora Roberts (aka JD Robb) has written centering around the character of Eve Dallas, her husband Roarke, and their ever-expanding made-from-scratch family.
That’s an impressive feat. But what makes it astonishing is that the books continue to land on the bestseller lists, every single time – and to keep me up late reading them on the day they come out, more often than not.
There are a number of reasons for that, and all of them are on display in this latest outing, which is why I cooked supper on Tuesday night with a spoon in one hand and my Kindle in the other: I couldn’t put it down.
Having finished my re-read now, here are four of those reasons and why, forty in, they never feel stale or repetitive to me:
Lack of Predictability:
The cases vary, from the classics (greed, revenge) to psychopaths, from a single victim, to hundreds (two of the books have dealt with terrorism); from powerful and important victims, to those on the lowest rungs of society’s ladder – all of whom matter equally to Eve.
The lack of predictability continues with the characters themselves. That’s an odd thing to say, since part of the point of a continuing series is that we know these people, know who they are, how they respond to things. And yet, in the real world, humans aren’t completely predictable, particularly as they change and grow – and neither are the best-written fictional people. (Which is another reason I get impatient with fan cries of ‘out of character,’ but that’s a different post.)
Case in point: knowing from the description of this one that it would involve an obsessed fan killing for Eve, I assumed she would be desperate to protect those around her by re-focusing the killer on herself. And I was right on that point.
But I assumed a by-product of that would be a fight, or at least tension, with Roarke, unhappy with the idea of her as a target, a theme they’ve explored before. And here, I was wrong, in part because he understood Eve was already in danger, and in part because he gets her – both in her ability to take care of herself, and her need to protect.
I love being both right and wrong, love knowing these two well enough to know how they’ll feel, but not necessarily how they’ll respond – and yet to find that their reactions make perfect sense for who they are.
When the series began, Eve had two people in her life who mattered: Feeney, her former partner and stand-in father, and Mavis, the wild child former con who’s her best friend. And now? She has an extended, often unwieldy family, comprised of everyone from her partner, to a crime beat reporter, to the chief medical examiner, to the cops in her squad.
Not every character appears in every book, and several are referenced in this one without making an appearance. But the fact that they exist, are part of Eve’s life and growth, is one of the reasons for the success of the series, I believe. When new characters are introduced, people who influence or challenge Eve (or Eve and Roarke) in new ways, it allows the story to go in different directions.
This is not the first installment in the series to look at that family as whole, nor what it means to Eve. But it showcases certain relationships in a way we’ve never seen before:
It’s been clear since the beginning that Feeney is Eve’s father in every sense of the word, but here, we have this exchange, where ‘Dad’ pulls rank – literally – and she responds the way any kid does, no matter their age or maturity:
“People kill for any damn reason, Dallas. Who knows that better than you and me? Sit down.”
“I’ve got to-”
“Sit. I still outrank you.”
“Ah, hell.” She sat, sulked.
He then grills her about encounters she may have had and misunderstood, in a way that few others could. There’s a similar encounter with Mira – her de facto mother – and I love seeing both her ‘parents’ responding that way.
There’s a dynamic that exists between good parents and their adult kids, one where the parents respect their kids’ maturity – while maintaining the right to play the mom or dad trump card: Sit down, shut up, and listen, because I love you, and still have some years of wisdom on you.
That they respect Eve as an adult and a cop is never in question, but the love they have for her as a adoptive daughter gives them rights no one else has.
Another relationship that’s emphasized in this one is that of Eve with the men and women who make up the Homicide division she leads. Over the course of the series, we’ve come to know some of them pretty well, particularly Baxter and Trueheart, but here, we see all of them highlighted in different ways, especially Reineke, who not only is instrumental to saving them all, but who verbalizes what they are to one another:
Eve got to her feet, turned first to Reineke. “Nice shot, Detective.”
“Nice jump, boss. Ah hell.”
To her shock, he threw his arms around her, lifted her to her toes in a giant bear hug.
“Okay, okay. Hey.”
“Just went back for a cup of christing coffee. Stuck back there, my family out here. I can’t do squat.”
“Going for christing coffee and keeping your head saved your family.”
The books have often referenced events that happened in an earlier installment, particularly the Icove case (Origin in Death) and Nixie Swisher (Survivor in Death.) But this is the first to revisit several earlier cases (Rapture in Death, Conspiracy in Death, Portrait in Death) in such a deliberate way, to revisit them as part of the plot of the new story.
But the book wasn’t all backward-focused: It answered a question I’ve long wondered about: who, exactly, are the ‘sweepers’? Eve calls them in, or refers to them as a group, seldom even addressing them, and when we’ve encountered people from so many other departments, that seemed odd. Here, that’s addressed, both giving us an overview of the department and introducing us to the department head, Dawson – who I suspect we’ll meet again in future stories.
And then there’s Ivanna, Summerset’s companion, introduced late in the book. She serves no purpose in this story, so I assume this means we’ll see her again, when she’ll have a bigger role to play. I love that continuity, that in book forty of a series, we’re both looking backwards and forwards.
Eve and Roarke
On some level, it’s odd to use the word ‘authentic’ about a fictitious couple from a story set in the future. But however fantastic the characters and setting are, their relationship feels just that: authentic.
We see Eve struggling to balance being a murder cop with being the wife of a powerful man – not because the power matters to her, but because the man does; we see Roarke, who loves his wife because of and in spite of her being a murder cop, shifting from business tycoon to civilian consultant – because that’s what they both need:
“I have a feeling I’m overdressed for what we’ll be doing this evening,” Roarke commented.
“I’m sorry. I need a minute.” She scrubbed her hands over her face, then just left them there.
“Eve.” Amused resignation shifted to concern as Roarke went over, sat next to her. “Is someone hurt?”
“Bastwick. Leanore Bastwick. She’s dead.”
“Yes, I heard that on the media bulletin, assumed you’d caught it, and that’s why you were late. But you barely knew her.”
“It’s not her. Of course it’s her,” Eve corrected. “But it’s me. I didn’t let it hit me until just now. It can’t get in the way.”
“It doesn’t make any sense. But that’s nothing new, is it? You have to remember a lot of the time it doesn’t make sense.”
“You’re not.” And that concerned him. “Tell me.”
They get each other, in all their moods and roles, and that allows them to find ways to mesh their separate, very different lives. (Granted, the fact that he’s accepted by the cops as a civilian consultant makes some of that easier.)
One of the high points of this one for me is when Eve says to him, “I don’t think I could live without you anymore.” It’s not that she loves him more than she did in earlier books, but so much changed for her when he came into her life, for the good, that she can no longer imagine her old life, and we know, though it’s unspoken here, that the same is true of Roarke.
That bald truth is another aspect of the story that works better because we’re so far along in the series. Said too soon, it could sound melodramatic; said forty books in, when we’ve seen them change and grow, seen her face the things she’s faced and come through stronger because he’s at her side…it fits. It’s been earned.
As a rule, I don’t read these for the cases, but rather for what it gives us in terms of character growth, relationship and interaction. But this one hooked me, because some of it resonated a bit too much, felt too similar to what I see in various fandoms.
The line between being a fan and in building a life around another a person you’re unlikely to even meet can be thin, and seeing Eve put words to how weird that is only emphasized how troubling is our celebrity-fixated culture: Was there anything more exhausting than having complete strangers build fantasies and scenarios around you?
I’ve already ordered book 41, due out in September.
“We’ll get through this, Eve.”
“Yeah, we’ll get through it.” (Roarke and Eve)
“Candidates.” She managed a short laugh. “For Dallas’s new best friend. I’m not really clear on how I ended up with the friends I actually have, but I do know a top requirement is no murdering lunatics need apply.” (Eve)
Love turned everybody’s brain sideways, just like a stunner. (Eve)
“Too many people. How the hell did there get to be so many of them?”
“You changed your life. You opened your life. And it’s made you a better cop. A steadier person, in my professional opinion. This woman hasn’t done the same. She can’t let go of whatever eats her inside.” (Eve and Mira)
“And Mavis got us all full-access passes, so we get some VIP treatment and get to hob and nob with celeb and music stars.”
“I’d rather be flayed alive and force-fed my own skin.” (Peabody and Eve)
“All my people, Mira. All of them. My family. Reineke said it. You do whatever you have to for family.” (Eve)