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 Valeri reviews #17, Imitation in Death.
Criminal Element’s commitment to reviewing each of J.D. Robb’s forty-three Eve Dallas novels in anticipation of the forthcoming Echoes in Death (out February 7th) provided me with a rare experience: to read an established author for the very first time midway through a phenomenally popular and successful series.
To say that Nora Roberts, and her much darker literary alter ego J.D. Robb, has been on my radar would be an understatement. That my introduction to her work would come via Imitation in Death—a seductive whodunit that focuses on a cunning copycat killer recreating some of history’s most notorious crimes—strikes me as appropriate, given my decades-long fascination with the macabre and an unabashed love of such genre books that meld fiction with fact.
The story opens on a hot summer night in 2059. Jacie Wooton—a licensed street worker with twenty years of experience in selling sex for cash—is looking for a quick score to cover the rent. She believes she’s found her prey when a man wearing a cape and top hat and carrying a black satchel agrees to accompany her down a narrow, dark alley after being solicited. When Wooton’s mutilated body is discovered, her throat slit and pelvic area removed, Lieutenant Eve Dallas can’t mistake the unsub’s inspiration: Jack the Ripper. A note addressed to Dallas is recovered at the crime scene; its closing salutation reads: “Looking forward to our continued association.”
Though the letter—written on expensive stationery imported from London—promises more bloodshed, it also provides a vital clue that allows Dallas to begin investigating and interrogating a list of high-profile individuals known to have purchased said paper. These include an international recording artist, a theater producer, a true crime author/expert, and a member of the United Nations. Such a sensational crime coupled with a cadre of celebrity suspects—and the requisite bureaucratic BS—holds the promise of a media spectacle, should word leak to the press, creating an added pressure beyond simply closing the case.
Dallas—a sharp-tongued firecracker who is entirely assured in her professional life but woefully insecure in her private one—comes to believe that the killer has a hatred of women, stemming back to childhood, and is perpetuating these crimes as a means of vengeance. Given her own traumatized past with an abusive and distant mother, she has some unique insights into possible motivations—but they hold the potential to both clear and cloud her judgments. When a second body turns up, this one bearing the signature of the Boston Strangler, and a third attack echoes Ted Bundy’s MO, it becomes increasingly evident that the killer has escalated—and that Dallas is his end game.
A loner by nature, Dallas doesn’t always play well with others but is nevertheless aided in her investigation by a team of associates and acquaintances. These include her direct subordinate, the perpetually perky Delia Peabody; a colleague, Dr. Charlotte Mira (a maternal figure of sorts); and her wealthy husband, Roarke (who is reckoning with his own upbringing). Each of these relationships reveals facets of Dallas’s otherwise abrasive character, from the feisty and funny to the fierce and flirtatious, thereby solidifying her status as a complex crusader for justice. Technology (by way of droids, 'links, and the like) is also an asset to the inquiry, given the series’ futuristic setting, though Robb wisely keeps her mechanics to a minimum.
Fittingly, Imitation in Death proves that J.D. Robb is a true original. While she draws the reader in with a suitably dark and dastardly premise, it’s the personalities, politics, procedures, and promiscuities that sustain interest—so much so that the ending, though satisfying, is more formality than finesse.
This book marks the 17th installment to feature Eve Dallas, but it stands alone brilliantly—which is a testament to the author’s deft hand. You’ll come away wanting to know Lt. Dallas better—and comforted by the knowledge that you don’t have to start at the beginning to do so.
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John Valeri wrote the popular Hartford Books Examiner column for Examiner.com from 2009 – 2016. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com and is featured in the Halloween-themed anthology Tricks and Treats, now available from Books & Boos Press.