Survivor in Death
by J.D. Robb
(Putnam, $23.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-399-15208-3
****
I believe one of the reasons the ‘in Death’ series has captured and held the interest of readers is Robb’s slow but steady development of Dallas and Roarke. Each new book uses the framework of a murder mystery to explore some new element of their personalities and relationship. Survivor in Death tiptoes up to perhaps the thorniest issue yet – children.

The story begins, as they all do, with death. Nine-year-old Nixie Swisher and her best friend are having an unusual mid-week sleepover while the friend’s parents celebrate their anniversary. Waking up thirsty in the middle of the night, Nixie creeps down to the kitchen to get a forbidden soda, leaving her friend asleep in bed. Nixie thinks she’s busted when she hears footsteps, but quickly realizes that someone is sneaking into the housekeeper’s room off the kitchen.

Thinking she’s going to catch the woman with an, ahem, male caller, Nixie creeps to the door and looks in, just in time to see the intruder slit the woman’s throat. Within minutes, everyone in the house has been coldly executed, except Nixie, who, in spite of her terror, has the presence of mind to call 911 for help.

When Eve Dallas arrives on the scene, she notices that there should be two little girls in the house but there’s only one dead in the bed. She searches for, and finds Nixie cowering in her parents’ bathroom. Nixie immediately identifies the detective as her best source of protection and clings to Dallas as though her life depended on it. Smart kid.

When Child Protection Services arrives to transport Nixie to a safe house, pending a search for relatives or a guardian, Nixie pleads with Dallas not to let them take her away. Peabody (Dallas’s partner, for those of you who’ve been living off-planet for the last nine years) suggests that Dallas should take Nixie home with her. Nowhere could be safer than Roarke’s tightly secured estate and it will be easier there to both care for and gently coax relevant information from the traumatized Nixie.

Dallas agrees to the sense of all this, albeit reluctantly. Nixie’s situation reminds Dallas too much of her own troubled background for comfort, but she can’t dispute the logic.

Although this book begins with a particularly horrific crime, it proceeds in a fairly low key, partly because the efforts to solve the crime result in a string of (if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase) dead ends. Nonetheless, the writing is paced energetically enough to keep the reader involved, in the style that is typical of this author. The plot is tightly, logically constructed with scrupulous honesty in both situation and character.

After twenty books, however, even ‘in Death’ fans (of whom I am unapologetically one) can no longer ignore the formula. The relationship between Dallas and Roarke still has a very satisfactory sizzle (although in this particular book it simmers in the background), but even though each book deals with a different element of the characters’ growth, each has a similar rhythm and a similar pattern. Sometimes that can feel like a satisfying reunion with old friends. Sometimes it can feel repetitive.

The combination of Dallas, Roarke and children is a topic of hot debate amongst the series’ aficionados, and this book officially opens the subject. I think it does so in a way that is absolutely true to the characters as we know them. That is a good thing, to be sure, but it does make it difficult for the author to surprise us, contributing to the overtones of predictability.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, because the series, like each book, has a certain rhythm. The books vary in intensity, and this is one that tugs you along by the hand rather than by the throat. I enjoyed it; but, even better, I feel like it’s setting me up for the next one.

If you’re new to the series, don’t start with this book; go back to the beginning. If you’re a fan, I think this book will leave you both satisfied and wanting more.

-- Judi McKee


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