At the explosive climax of the previous Eve Dallas novel, Loyalty in Death, the fate of New York City hung in the balance. It would have been tough to top that plot for sheer excitement. So Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb, wisely shifts the tone of the tenth book of her popular futuristic mystery/suspense series. Witness in Death is much more of a traditional cozy mystery, with a low body count, a finite list of
suspects, and a notable lack of explicit violence.
New York Police Lieutenant Eve Dallas is attending a play with her billionaire husband, Roarke, when something goes horribly amiss. The drama's leading man, Richard Draco, is stabbed to death by the leading lady during the final scene. Someone has replaced the prop knife with a very real one. There are literally hundreds of witnesses and perhaps just as many suspects, but as Eve explores the case, she focuses her investigation on Draco's fellow actors. The victim was not a paragon of virtue. He was vain, selfish
and downright cruel, with a history of seducing and then dropping women. But was the motive for his death simple anger over being tossed aside, or is it more complicated?
Roberts seems to be addressing her critics who have expressed disapproval about the violence in her novels with Witness' opening paragraph: "There was always an audience for murder. Whether it took its form in horror or glee, in dark humor or quiet grief, mankind's fascination with the ultimate crime made it a ripe subject for exploration in fact and in fiction." I'm only giving the people what they want, she may be
saying. Nonetheless, the violence and gore are definitely toned down in this installment. Eve and her team use all of their skills to narrow down the list of suspects, but there is no sense of urgency, as in other cases, that a serial murderer is on the loose, or that they are racing against time to prevent additional deaths. The denouement occurs with all of the primary suspects together at the scene of the crime, where Eve reveals her theory and nabs the murderer with the panache of Hercule Poirot.
Witness in Death may lack the breathtaking exhilaration of the previous case, but it maintains the series' high quality primarily because of the relationships between and among the characters we've come to know and care about. Readers will be glad to know that Eve's stalwart aide, Delia Peabody, continues her liaison with crude but somehow attractive fellow cop McNabb. Peabody is still dating suave "Licensed
Companion" Charles Monroe as well, and an interesting triangle is developing.
Eve is confronted, again and again, by the complexities of relationships, now that she is completely out of the protective shell she lived in before she met Roarke. In a particularly effective scene Eve tries without much success to deal with an emotionally distraught Peabody, when Eve tries to protect her aide's feelings but winds up hurting them instead. And although Eve and Roarke's relationship does not face any major
crisis, Eve spends a large portion of the novel reaching out to demonstrate her love -- with humorous and poignant results. Eve is definitely discovering that relationships are messy, and that professional and personal lines can easily be blurred, but it's too late for her to turn back and become the detached workaholic she once was.
The key to solving the murder of Richard Draco resonates deeply for Eve, as she continues to battle the demons of her past. If I'm reading the foreshadowing right, Nora Roberts is leading up to a revelation about Eve's past -- and/or her future.
Saying that Witness in Death was not as strong as Loyalty in Death is akin to saying that Dove Milk Chocolate Promises are not as good as the Dark Chocolate ones. They're both fabulously enjoyable, and the difference may be attributable more to individual preferences than to lack of quality. The quieter, more personal mystery of Witness may strike a chord with many fans of the best-selling series, and even attract some new ones.