Review: Festive in Death by J.D. Robb

To celebrate the upcoming release of J.D. Robb's 44th Eve Dallas mystery, Echoes in Death, we're taking a look back at every single book in the In Death series. Today, John Jacobson reviews #39, Festive in Death.

At book 39 (wow) of the In Death series, Festive in Death is a great way to look at the evolution of Robb’s work. My last review was of Rapture in Death—one of the earliest books in the series. The differences between the first few stories and the later books are readily apparent, but, as a fan of Robb’s work, I have to say that I find them the sign of an expert in her craft.

Festive in Death continues the work of characterizing Eve Dallas by looking at her relationship of giving to others, and it also makes a strong statement about the importance of identifying rape as rape. Robb’s continued quest to keep this series growing and relevant to contemporary issues is a worthwhile one, and I think In Death fans have a lot to still appreciate about later In Death books.

Trey Ziegler is a popular personal trainer in NYC with a strong client base and a reputation for being a lady’s man. Sadly, his physique and charisma don’t help him avoid being murdered with a knife straight through the chest. Lieutenant Eve Dallas doesn’t like slick playboys such as Trey, but her professional desire for justice has her searching for his killer. 

It quickly becomes known that Trey’s reputation with women has a dark side. Many women are found with some connection to Trey in files he kept on clients, especially those he served privately. However, Trey’s clients almost universally describe being coerced into having a sexual relationship with him through a ritual of an at-home massage and some specially brewed tea. The playboy is revealed to be a rapist with a long history of repeated sexual assault, and Eve is aware that many of his victims believed him when he said it was their choice—and that Trey used that for blackmail.

Christmas is rearing its festive, sparkly head just as Eve’s investigation heats up. It’s been a few years since she’s gathered her group of friends and created a makeshift, ragtag family, but the unbreakable Eve Dallas still struggles with public intimacy. Buying the perfect Christmas gifts may prove to be harder than finding Trey Ziegler’s killer. Eve may find gift-giving baffling, but even she can’t predict the twists and turns of this murder case, especially when so many people had good reasons to want Trey Ziegler dead. 

Readers like me return to this series again and again because of Eve Dallas. Continuing detective/police procedural series are a hard nut to crack because the originality of mystery plots coming from one person can only go so far. We see it all the time in suspense and mystery television, too. Plots differentiate, but after a while some crimes can feel the same even if their perpetrators/circumstances/consequences are very different. Robb prevents readers from series plot burnout by making Eve Dallas a continual work in progress.

Festive In Death does this by showing Eve’s struggle with public social intimacy. Basically, she has no idea why giving gifts to loved ones is a tradition around the holidays, and she finds herself incompetent when it comes to giving physical presents. It falls on well-established character traits that make up Eve’s fundamental person, so readers easily believe it’s an issue, but it also has a surprising emotional punch when placed against the larger series. 

Internally, only 2 to 3 years have passed in the In Death world since the first book, so it actually makes sense that Eve would still struggle with identifying ways to show her friendship to people. There’s an undercurrent of sadness that Robb summarizes well in her periodic expository passages, showing how two years of nonstop action and growth can’t erase Eve’s long bittersweet history with holidays such as Christmas. Robb pinpoints these emotions so directly, so concisely, that you could almost miss their impact. Once you see it, however, the emotional power is there in full force, and you’re reminded of how Eve constantly has to remind herself to embrace and appreciate beautiful things. 

Telling herself to be grateful Christmas only hit once a year, she pulled back into traffic and fought the holiday rage of it all the way to the gates of home.

Diamond white lights twinkled in the trees along the drive, lending a fanciful air to the grounds. And the house rose, all gorgeous gray stone and shining glass, a fancy itself with its towers and turrets.

Lights glimmered, gleamed, outlining home against the night sky. Greenery draped and dripped, adding warmth to elegance. Candles glowed in every window, and that was welcome.

She, the lost child, had grown used to its beauty—that was love. But she would never take a single inch of it for granted. That was gratitude. 

Robb’s other uncanny ability in this book is to use the mystery as a commentary on the importance of recognizing rape and sexual assault in various forms. Robb presents it as a clear act of intentional coercion, even though the victims “agreed” to it, and has Eve expressing as much to the victims she questions. The mystery itself is serviceable and has enough of a twist to be unpredictable for some time, but it’s doubling as necessary social commentary is welcome. One of the most consistent things about Robb’s works is that they seek to use a futuristic setting to address issues that are of current concern.

She closed her eyes again. “Trey didn’t force me. He didn’t hurt me.” 

“Yes, he did.” Eve’s flat tone had Robbins opening her eyes again. “He didn’t hold you down or put bruises on you, but he forced you. He raped you.” 

“You’re right. You’re right.” 

Her eyes filled. Eve watched her wage a fight against them. Win it.

“Now I have come to terms with it again. I will. Well, back to therapy.” She lifted her glass in a toast. “What fun.” 

I believe that Robb handles these scenes well with Eve’s character. Eve may be dedicated to justice and the police lifestyle, but she doesn’t fall into every systemic trap when dealing with marginalized people. It makes her feel human, sympathetic in a way that not every police person is in crime fiction. That, more than anything, is why I’m compelled to read the In Death books. The police force in the U.S. is such a volatile, broken thing to me, and finding a character that humanizes them without justifying the broken system is a welcome relief.  

Longtime fans of the In Death series will see a clear shift in books like Festive in Death. There’s less in here about the romantic relationship between Roarke and Eve and more about Eve’s individual growth, as well as her handling of sensitive social issues she comes in contact with on the job. I love this shift in narrative, as I think it allows the mystery to unfold around Eve’s internal growth as a person.

Roarke is wonderful, but with almost 40 books under her belt in this series, it’s reassuring that Robb doesn’t want to frame Eve against Roarke in every book. Instead, there’s a healthy dose of feminist political commentary wrapped up in Eve’s organic character and an exploration of giving to people when you’re totally unused to having long-term intimate friendships.

Festive in Death is a satisfying entry, with the Eve Dallas we know and love continuing to change and show how limitless a character can be in their growth.  

 

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John Jacobson is a college student that likes to get little sleep and advocate for LGBTQ/queer social justice.  If he had spare time, it would always be spent reading or watching nostalgic 90’s cartoons.  He’s a coeditor at Spencer Hill Press and has been a part of the publishing community for over five years.  He also writes for Heroes and Heartbreakers.  You can find him there, on Twitter @DreamingReviews, and occasionally on his personal blog.

Read all of John Jacobson's posts for Criminal Element!

Comments

  1. catbookmom

    Very nice review. Dallas’ lack of understanding of what most of us think of as normal friendship responsibilities, and her near-refusal to follow through on some of them (remember how much Peabody had to shoulder in *Born in Death*) is sometimes annoying, but it is clear that she is, gradually, beginning to get a clue.

    I’m a big fan of this series, and I find myself re-reading or re-listening (Susan Ericksen is a wonderful narrator!) to many of the books on a regular basis.

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