Nora Roberts is a force of writing. She’s prolific and she’s earned the right to write whatever she wants. She’s generous to other writers and works to make her corner of the world a better place, both on an off the page.
Some of her books work for me; some don’t. The head-hopping doesn’t work for me, even in the books I like. But that happens when an author writes a lot of books — different books resonate with different people. That’s one of the joys of writing and reading. There’s something for everyone. That’s why libraries and bookstores are so vital to our inner and outer lives. Which is also a different conversation.
Nora Roberts writes the In Death series as J.D. Robb. The series is set in a futuristic New York City (that’s no longer so far away). The primary protagonist is a cop, Eve Dallas, who overcame a horrifying childhood to stand for justice, even for those who don’t deserve it. Her partner in all this is her lover, than husband, who only goes by the name of Roarke, who has his own dark past.
Robb takes the expectations of romance, police procedural, and science fiction and turns them inside out. Yes, there’s romance in each book — and plenty of sex, usually pretty rough. There’s murder (sometimes graphic), investigation, resolution. There’s a well-built alternate world that’s both familiar and different. There are interesting plots taken to sometimes extreme and frightening “what if?” scenarios.
But what keeps me reading is the ensemble of characters. Yes, Eve and Roarke are the center of the series, especially Eve. Roarke ticks the boxes for the perfect romance hero, even with his flaws. Eve takes “flawed” to a whole new level. I respect her and root for her, but I don’t always like her — and that’s one of the things I like about the series. My favorites in the series are Peabody and McNab, and the development of their relationship.
What’s great in all these books (I believe there are 47 tales in the series by now) is that Robb created an ensemble of characters and lets them grow from book to book. Not everyone is in every book. Sometimes characters are central to one story, and then have a cameo six or eight books down the line.
Often in books with romance as their central drive, in order to fit expectations of genre, the pair of primary protagonists are one-and-done. They have the collision and the adventure that lets them find each other and their passion, and then the book ends with an HEA (Happily Ever After) or an HFN (Happily For Now). And the author’s next book goes on to another pair of central protagonists.
Sometimes, they remain as supporting characters around the next pair of protagonists. Roberts herself does this in her trilogies, where a team of six hook up, and each pair has their adventure to each other central to a book, while supporting the other four characters. Jayne Ann Krentz, Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley, and Julia Quinn are other authors who do this and do this very well. I do this in my Coventina Circle series, although I wouldn’t put myself in the category of any of the authors I mention on this page.
But the In Death series allows Eve and Roarke’s relationship to grow, book to book. Yes, they’re married. But their marriage is far from boring. Readers get to watch the relationship evolve. They get to see the obstacles and how these people who truly love and need each other, find solutions TOGETHER. Every problem they overcome together strengthens the relationship. They learn how to build family, friendships, something beautiful amidst the ugliness in the world. That’s a sharp contrast to the adage that as soon as a couple marries, they’re boring.
It’s enough to give the rest of us hope.
Eve learns how to be friend. Some of the funniest and best scenes in the series are when she tries to help people she cares about (especially her women friends) through an emotional crisis, and her discomfort with it. But she tries, and that matters. She doesn’t make it all about her; she puts her own discomfort aside to help someone who needs her. Not by being a martyr or for praise, but because that person matters.
We get to know the other cops in her squad. They’re not ciphers; they’re human beings. And, like in life, people move away, move on, die, change. They have ups and downs; argue and make-up. But in times of crisis, they have each other’s backs. Always.
We get to know other people in her life: Mavis and Mavis’s expanding family; Summerset; Nadine (who looks like she might get her own happy ending one day); Quilla, who’s quickly becoming another of my favorites. The circle expands and contracts, but relationships and life are about more than the same three people you see most days. Too many books subtract characters or, if there’s a large ensemble, each characters “stands” for something instead of “being” something. The characters in this series are themselves.
It’s the best sort of world-building, in my opinion, because it builds the world through relationships. Yes, there are still cases and death and people doing horrible things to each other, and too many who don’t deserve to die are murdered. But the books also show how love, friendship, strength, and belief in the capacity for love — can make the world a better place.
The series may be called “In Death” — but it’s an affirmation of life.