Review: Portrait 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, Meghan Harker reviews #16, Portrait in Death.

Though I’m getting better at reading outside my usual genres, I typically stick to historical settings, fantasy, or horror when looking for a new fiction book to devour. Portrait in Death—the 16th book in J.D. Robb’s In Death series—dragged me out of that comfort zone and unexpectedly flung me into the future. 

A letter and a portrait arrive on the desk of a reporter at Channel 75, and the first hint at a possible homicide has Lieutenant Eve Dallas itching. When Rachel Howard is found discarded in a dumpster, she realizes she's got her work cut out for her. A series of letters and portraits—and ultimately corpses—sets her on the trail of an artist, a perfectionist, and a serial killer obsessed with capturing the light of his victims with his lens.

Before I began reading, I had no idea this series was set in the year 2058, and therefore had a considerable learning curve regarding the jargon and futuristic things. I got the hang of it pretty quick; one of the things I appreciate about the series is the ability to come in halfway through and feel like you haven’t missed a thing. I’m can’t say if that rings true for all the books in this series, but it did for Portrait in Death

I’m not generally one for cop procedurals either, but Portrait in Death surprised me with a riveting voice, great storytelling, and absolute believability. It wasn’t so far flung into the future as to feel contrived, and though gathering information and building a case reflects the advances in technology, Eve still had to rely on cunning and science. It’s also not so far removed from the past that history isn’t taken advantage of.

“Art. It all deals with art.”

“Deeper, Peabody.”

“Okay.” She wanted to take off her cap, scratch her head, but resisted. “Controlling the subject? Controlling the art in order to create?”

“On one level,” Eve agreed. “Control, creation, and the accolades that result. The attention, anyway, the recognition. In this case we have a teacher. She instructs, she gives her knowledge, her skill, her experience, and others take it and go on to become what she hasn’t. She’s written a couple of books, published some images, but she isn’t considered an artist, is she? She’s considered a teacher.”

“It's a very respected and often under-appreciated vocation. You’re a really good teacher, for instance.”

“I don’t teach anybody. Train maybe, but that’s different.”

“I wouldn’t have the shot at a gold shield, not this soon, if you hadn’t taught me.”

“Trained you, and let’s stay on target here. The other level is taking from the subject and seeing them as just that. A subject, not a person with a life, a family, with needs or rights. A subject, like—I don’t know—a tree. If you’ve got to cut down the tree to get what you want, well, too bad. Plenty more trees.”

“You’re talking to a Free-Ager here.” Peabody shuddered. “Taking about indiscriminately mowing down trees hits me in a primal area.”

“The killer isn’t killing just for the thrill of taking a life. It isn’t don't with rage, or for profit. It isn’t sexual. But it is personal. It’s intimate—for the killer. This person, this specific person, has what I need, so I’ll take it. I’ll take what they have, then it becomes mine. They become mine, and the result is art. Admire me.”

“That’s a pretty twisted route.”

“It’s a pretty twisted mind. And a smart one, a cool one.”

What I loved most about the storyline was the call back to Victorian post-mortem photography. (I did say my specialty was historical settings!) Our serial killer’s portraits are taken after death, but the victims are posed in ways which imitate life: a causal portrait, a dancer, etc. Before the days of instant photography, portraits of the dead were made as memento mori, and were often the only image a family had to remember their loved one by. Photographers arranged the bodies in life-like positions, even painting on eyes to give the dead the illusion of life. In the case of our serial killer, the portraits are used to convey that life while taking it into himself through the act of death. 

Lieutenant Dallas herself is a compelling leading lady. She’s rough around the edges, serious about her work, and incredibly loyal and caring. She doesn’t always know the best way to show it, but she has faith and trust in her partners on the force, in the field, and at home. And she’s sardonic and sass, which I love.

I did find the writing style a little jarring, with abrupt sentences and a lack of transition, but it is a cop book, so maybe that’s par for the course. Unfortunately, I also felt a bit lost. There were so many suspects and people questioned that I never had a sense of the who the killer was, and not in the good way. The other bit that bothered me was the treatment of the serial killer once he’s revealed. It’s obvious he’s delusional as a (probable) result of grief and depression, but the solution is to “put him back in the cage.” While I understand that’s still police-slang for jail, it brushes off the obvious: the criminalization of mental illness and the lack of proper treatment. 

Overall, I rather enjoyed the book, and I’m looking forward to reading the next. If you’re looking for futuristic crime novels without dystopian deserts or a society run by robots, give J.D. Robb’s work a shot. It seems there’s a crime out there for everyone.


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Meghan Harker grew up in a small, awkwardly-named town in Georgia. She attended Brenau University, where she earned her BA in English and a minor in Graphic Design; she also attended the University of Cambridge, England, where she didn't quite master the perfect Oxbridge accent. She's an avid reader, writer, and fire spinner. She's currently working her first novel, a paranormal thriller. Visit her blog at


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