For the past couple of decades Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb, quietly has been creating one of the most consistently intriguing series of police procedural fiction. Collectively these novels are known as the "Death" series due to the appearance of that word in each title. The series itself --- which centers on New York City police lieutenant Eve Dallas in the mid-21st century --- straddles and blurs the genres of mystery, speculative fiction, and romantic suspense. Robb does this exceptionally well, adding a statistic here and a romantic interlude there, just so you know where you are and why. But the focus is mystery and suspense. She is not the first to do something like this --- Isaac Asimov wrote futuristic detective stories and Larry Niven's Gil Hamilton stories are unforgettable --- but Robb's work stands with these stalwarts, as opposed to within their respective long and deep shadows.
ORIGIN IN DEATH is Robb's latest work and arguably her best to date. It begins with the murders of Dr. Wilfred B. Icove, Sr. and Jr., an oft-lauded father and son who are known as pioneers in the fields of cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. Both men are found murdered --- one in his office, one at home --- in identical fashion. Dallas intuits that the "why" of these killings is at least as important as the "how" given that the older gentleman was known as "Dr. Perfect" and had a record that was spotlessly clean.
Dallas does what she does best, kicking over rocks both literal and figurative to see what comes crawling out. She is ably assisted by her friend Peabody and the seemingly immutable Roarke, her doting husband. A self-made billionaire, Roarke is a genius combination of Midas and James Bond, a Santa Claus with a seemingly bottomless sack of technological goodies who has enough connections to appear to be literally anywhere and to ascertain anything.
Dallas's tenaciousness and Roarke's resources eventually uncover not only the motive but also the perpetrator behind the deaths of the Icoves --- and in so doing find a quiet horror that puts Dallas in an ethical dilemma for which there is no easy solution.
Robb's ability to merge mystery and speculation is displayed at its finest here. Those who are unfamiliar with the series and who might be otherwise intimidated by a protagonist who has been the subject of multiple novels need not worry. Robb offers just enough to bring new readers up to speed and drops just enough references to encourage a look at her backlist. ORIGIN IN DEATH, however, is a marvelous place to start.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 14, 2011