Strangers In Death

Strangers In Death_JDRobb_2494207

SKIN GAME

5 STARS

Thomas Anders is dead in his bed. The wrists and ankles of his naked body are tied to the bedposts with velvet rope. His neck is wrapped in a fifth velvet rope that is lashed to the other four. The cord itself didn’t kill him; the angle of the tie-off choked him to death over a protracted period of time. At first glance, it appears a kinky night has gone awry.

But, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. For Eve Dallas, three things are wrong with this scenario. First, there are too many toys scattered about the room, some new, most unused. Secondly, there are too many things missing from the scene, such as the man’s clothes, the home’s security discs for the last 24 hours, any evidence that the man ever tried to struggle against the choking, and any evidence that another party was actually involved with him sexually. Of course, somebody else had to be there, though. Anders could not have possibly tied his second wrist or his neck by himself.

The third wrong thing is the victim’s wife. Ava Anders is a thousand miles away on vacation with some female friends when she learns of her husband’s demise from their housekeeper. Several hours later, when she strides across the threshold, she is stylishly dressed, perfectly coiffed, immaculately made up, no sign of tears now or ever, and screaming at Dallas about the circus that is now her home and yard.

As soon as the word “homicide” is mentioned along with the idea of sexual infidelity, the widow shifts gears. You practically see her put the back of her hand to her forehead, roll her eyes upward and go into an “Oh, woe is me” routine.

What Eve doesn’t see is any genuine grief. There are a lot of sniffs, remonstrations and demands to see the body, but not any real grief. What Eve doesn’t hear are any questions about the details of the death. And what she does hear is a lot of “I.”

Based on the title of the book, the opening scenes with the body and the unassailability of the wife’s alibi, I felt that J. D. Robb was writing a futuristic adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train.” (No, Hitchcock directed the movie, Highsmith wrote the book.) From this point on, if I was right, it was a matter of identifying the other murder, be it one from the past or one yet to come. Once identified, that murder would lead directly to the identity of Anders’ murderer.

But the whole point of “Strangers on a Train” is that the murderers would have no connection to each other beyond one chance meeting. No connection, no identifiable motive, thus no arrest. But when one of the conspirators chickens out, the other re-establishes contact and the “perfect crime” starts to fall apart.

So, for 300 pages, Robb has us on the hunt for the person with whom Ava Anders made the pact and with whom she was forced to re-connect. We, along with Dallas, push to find that one connection that will foil and undermine the alibis and the smoke screens that Ava Anders has so carefully built. For Ava has told one story about her husband’s character, and not another soul that knew the man will agree with those allegations.

In this entry, Robb forgoes the typical psychotic or serial killer format that usually ends with a serious physical confrontation between Eve and the killer. This time, the battle between the two is truly one of wits, instead. And the denouement is a thrilling, play-within-a-play. However, the best part of the story is the way Robb builds the case, through Eve, step by logical step, against the normal odds, always with an eye on the difference between justice and the law, and always with a focus on the idea of partnership, be it between Eve and Roarke or Eve and her detectives.

But, never fear, Eve does get to take down a couple of non-murderous perps physically as the book progresses. Quite frankly, it just wouldn’t be an In Death entry without a dream or a black eye.

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Eternity In Death

Eternity In Death_JDRobb_10543779

WOODEN STAKES AND SILVER CROSSES

4 STARS

Tiara Kent is one of those megarich kids whom the media adore. Her money comes from the hard work of someone three generations before her and she has never had to nor even been expected to do anything that remotely resembles work. Thus, her only goals in life are to buy clothes and shoes, to find the next chemical high, and to find the next thrilling adventure.

When Tiara’s father announces his engagement to a woman even younger than Tiara’s 23 years, she becomes obsessed with the horrors of growing old and thus obsessed with the necessity to remain beautiful. She fills her days with body sculpting, breast implants, face-lifts and acres of mirrors in her penthouse in which to admire the results.

And she fills the remaining two weeks of her nights with the Dark Prince, as she calls him, who has promised to give her eternal life – and eternal beauty. When Eve Dallas and Peabody see her the morning following her “ritual of immortality,” they find the requisite puncture marks on her neck. They find a smattering of blood on her sheets. They find the rest of her blood missing. They find her jewelry missing as well. And they find her as dead as the proverbial doornail.

This being only a 108-page novella, it does not take Eve long to locate the alleged “Dark Prince.” He is Dorian Vadim, owner and manager of the underground club BloodBath, a club geared to the wanna-be vampire crowd and those just out for a taste (pun intended) of the supernatural side.

Vadim is tall, dark and handsome, charismatic to the nth degree and sex walking. He is also arrogant enough to try to seduce Eve with Roarke standing right beside her. But it is the soulless black eyes, the same eyes her father had, that unnerve Eve and jolt her stride.

So, armed with incident reports from both Europe and the states, tox and DNA reports from Morris, a profile from Mira and her own stun gun, Eve goes on the hunt to bring Vadim down. With attitudes of “better safe than sorry,” thrust upon her is an open-minded New Ager’s approach from Peabody, garlic cloves from her detective squad, a wooden stake from Baxter and a silver cross from Roarke.

This is not the first entry in which JD Robb has introduced some form of paranormal entity into a murder. Previously, there have been ghosts as well as psychics and sensitives with documented successes. Now, the focus is on vampires, both the ones of legend and the ones who metaphorically suck another person’s soul dry.

Cloves of garlic aside, this entry is no spoof, even if it was written at the height of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight Saga.” The murders are real, the characters’ beliefs or disbeliefs in the supernatural are real, and the wooden stake and cross turn out to be not such bad ideas either.

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Creation In Death

Creation In Death_JDRobb_2815495

HOURS, MINUTES AND SECONDS

5 STARS

Nine years ago, a serial killer, dubbed The Groom, tortured and murdered four women in fifteen days. The naked bodies were found publically posed on a white sheet. Each body possessed multiple burns caused by both heat and cold, multiple puncture wounds caused by round objects, multiple bruises caused by inanimate objects and multiple lacerations caused by very sharp blades. Not a one had been raped.

And while he was called “The Groom” because he placed a silver ring on the left hand, that was only part of the killer’s signature. Another part was that all the women were brunette, fitly built and between the ages of 28 and 33. Never released to the public, however, was the fact that the killer carved into each torso, post-mortem, the exact number of hours, minutes and seconds that had elapsed from the first mark to the final heartbeat.

Now, in March 2060, The Groom has returned, placing on display the tortured and carved body of the female manager of one of Roarke’s more popular clubs. The body has been bathed and anointed in high-end products exclusive to a subsidiary of Roarke Enterprises. And the sheet on which the body is posed is expensive Irish linen, again exclusive to Roarke’s company. Then, within hours of discovering that body, another female Roarke Enterprises employee is reported missing. It appears that The Groom is targeting Roarke by proxy.

In charge of a task force dedicated to the capture of the killer, Eve Dallas and her team soon discover that at least 20 bodies with the same signature have been found worldwide over the past 9 years. However, none of those victims, or any of the four previously found in NYC, relate to Roarke in even the slightest way. It appears that, in this spree, Roarke is only a pawn, a connector to the killer’s end game – Eve. Just as the Biblical Eve was God’s last creation in life, Eve Dallas is meant to be the killer’s most important, most challenging, most exquisite – and his last – creation in death.

Pawn or not, Roarke is involved in this investigation from call-out to heart-pounding conclusion, a situation that Robb has not duplicated since the first novel of the series. As a full-time member of the task force assigned to the investigation, Roarke finally gets to observe Eve in every aspect of her job. He sees her functioning as the primary investigator into the murders, as the departmental head of a team of detectives working a myriad of homicides, as a drone gnawing on the bones of every lead, as a leader of a multi-divisional task force – and as bait for the killer.

Roarke learns what a day in the zoo that is Cop Central really consists of as opposed to his comfortable and secluded home office where he usually does his research. And he re-learns what it means to be absolutely and totally mentally whipped and bone-weary at the end of a day, as he must, in addition to his task force assignments, still command Roarke Enterprises.

Although this is the 25th entry in the series, Robb still finds a way to keep it exciting and not be a cookie-cutter version of previous books. Subtly changing both the personal and professional dynamics of several main and secondary characters, Robb makes this entry an original. And those subtle changes set the stage for the next book.

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Innocent In Death

Innocent In Death_JDRobb_74033

“You LOOKED At Her”

5 STARS

Craig Foster, a history teacher at a posh private school in NYC, is at his desk eating his home-prepared lunch and constructing a pop quiz for his next class. He’s young, dedicated and enthusiastic about his job. He is a newlywed, happy in his marriage to a woman who is lovely in both face and personality.

And Craig Foster is now dead at his desk. Actually, he only started dying at his desk. His actual last few minutes alive were spent trying to crawl, against agonizing abdominal pain, to the door of his classroom. And as Lieutenant Eve Dallas looks down on his body, she knows from the color of his vomit that he has been murdered.

Eve also knows that Morris, the accomplished ME who always gravitates to her cases, will soon tell her what chemical did the deed and how it was administered. So, for now, she can concentrate on who and why. Thus, Eve and Peabody shut down the school and the interviews begin.

By the time Eve finished those initial interviews, I was 95% certain as to the identity of the doer. J. D. Robb was not that obvious in her writing; I simply spent 30 years in a high school classroom. Granted, that classroom was in an urban public school rather than in the private sector, but it was still rife with intra-faculty politics, raging puberty-related hormones and more than the occasional fit of pique. Thus, as I was reading the account of one particular interview, my inner voice of teaching experience spoke up and I settled in to see if the clues Eve discovered along the way would support my hypothesis.

As J. D. Robb leads Eve down the logical but myriad paths toward the murderer, she also leads Eve – and the reader – along a personal path that is far more intense and terrifying than some of the shoot-outs in previous novels of the series. With this new homicide on her plate, Eve arrives late at a very upscale restaurant for a corporate dinner with Roarke and some clients. She is still in her “day job” clothes and is only partly certain that those clothes are free of the victim’s bodily fluids. She is definitely certain that she has on no make-up and that her hair is probably a mess from the nasty, snowy February weather.

Just as Roarke is making introductions all around, Eve hears a woman behind her call out Roarke’s name. As he looks up and past Eve’s shoulder, she sees an expression cross Roarke’s face ever so briefly, but it is a look that she has never seen Roarke give to any woman but her. And then she sees the beautiful blond, trim and shapely in a gorgeous red dress, oozing sophistication and charm. When the woman embraces Roarke in a decidedly intimate manner, breathing “lover” into the air, Eve’s emotional world cracks wide open at the seams.

Magdelana Percell has arrived. Dismissing Eve with a flick of her fingers, as both a person and as Roarke’s wife, she proceeds to fawn over Roarke for several minutes. Then, she leaves with her escort, a business associate of Roarke’s, for their own table, a table right in Roarke’s direct line of vision.

After dinner, Eve learns that Magdelana was not just a brief fling of Roarke’s. He explains that he and Maggie were both partners and lovers for about a year, some twelve years prior, while he was still stealing and smuggling art – and long before he met Eve. She also learns that he did not end the relationship; Maggie did. And she did it by running off with the mark targeted by their long con and by leaving a trap in place intended to get Roarke arrested.

Eve may not understand all the nuances of friendship or feminine wiles, but she does understand the markings of a sociopath. And she doesn’t know how to explain to Roarke what she saw in his face. Regardless, she does understand that there is an open and unresolved connection between the two, a connection that Maggie plans to exploit. Eve knows that Maggie intends to get Roarke back.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW***

However, as astute at business as he is, Roarke truly doesn’t see either the forest or the trees. He angrily dismisses Eve’s concerns as unwarranted jealousy and an unwarranted lack of trust. And when Somerset also questions Roarke’s actions and tries to warn him of Maggie’s intentions, Roarke coldly dismisses those concerns, too. So, for the next 200 pages, in trying to prove himself right and Eve wrong, he unwittingly plays right into Maggie’s plans.

Eve knows that Roarke would never physically betray her. But she is afraid that he will betray her in his mind, that he will regret what he lost and what he now has instead. Then, several days into the murder investigation, an investigation that is going around in circles and is being hampered by Eve’s emotional distraction, a news video comes on screen while she and Roarke are having breakfast. The video shows Roarke and Maggie in an intimate embrace on the street outside his office building, while the newscaster openly questions the future of Roarke’s marriage to NYC’s top homicide cop.

Devastated to her very core, Eve can barely breathe, let alone speak. As Roarke opens his mouth to explain, she shuts him out and flees the house. The detectives’ bullpen goes pin-drop silent, with all eyes on the floor, when she arrives at her office. Commander Whitney delicately questions her ability to continue with the Craig Foster case. But continue that investigation is what she does, minute by minute, all day long, diverting all the demands and threats from the still clueless idiot that is Roarke, to her voicemail.

At the end of the day, when Eve must decide whether she will go home or not, she finds herself on the doorstep of her oldest friend, Mavis Freestone. In the end, it is Mavis’ extensive experience with the making of videos that allows her to show Eve, frame by frame, the truth. Armed with that truth and knowing the words she needs to say to Roarke, Eve heads home to end the war over Magdelana Percell.

Back in 2007, when this entry was published, readers didn’t have the twenty-plus additional stories that we have as I write this review. A reader today knows that Eve and Roarke are still together, still a team. But I can just imagine back then the tension readers felt over this situation. I know I felt it even now, all these years later, even knowing how much is still to come. So I can also imagine the deep breaths of, first, fear and then relief, which are exhaled as this scene transpires.

However, every woman knows that a fight over a man does not end when that man and his significant other reach a loving understanding. That fight is never over until the Wicked Witch is nothing but a set of feet poking out of the rubble. And J. D. Robb writes that scene with a style and a content that will have the reader – female readers, anyway – pumping their fist in the air and yelling, “Yes!”

Now, with that major distraction out of the way, Eve can concentrate fully on her investigation. And it doesn’t take her even a day to reach the same conclusion that I reached in the first 30 pages of the book. However, that conclusion is so terrible to contemplate that Eve must now fight a new battle – with the Commander, with Mira, even with Peabody and Roarke – to be allowed to pursue that avenue of investigation.

And in that vein, Robb keeps the action going to the end. Most of it is tactical and emotional rather than the breaking of doors and the throwing of fists and kicks. And the scene where Eve gets the killer to confess is a masterpiece of verbal manipulation.

Though not one single entry at this point can be construed as a standalone, the In Death series just keeps getting better and better. Robb continues to build storylines apropos to anyone’s cognizance. And she has built enduring and endearing characters, whose experiences can touch a chord in anyone, regardless of wealth, social standing or career choice.

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Bye, Bye Baby

Born In Death_JDRobb_102857

BYE, BYE BABY

5 STARS

Natalie Copperfield and Bick Byson are both employees at the same high-powered accounting firm in NYC. They are both young, intelligent, capable and more than well thought of by the management of the firm. They are both engaged to be married, to each other, as a matter of fact. And they are both dead within an hour of each other.

Natalie is beaten almost beyond recognition, tortured by fire and strangled with her own belt. Bick is not tortured, but he is just as dead, beaten to a pulp and strangled with packing cord. Their computers and discs are gone; however, a deleted but recovered transmission from Natalie’s personal ‘link indicates that she found some massive irregularities with several accounts at work. Eve Dallas has discovered a motive for the murders. What she needs now is the nature of the irregularities and the companies involved.

Murder investigation notwithstanding, Eve is being forced to contend with the fact that Mavis Freestone’s baby is due in just a couple of weeks. There are birthing coach classes to attend with Roarke, a baby shower to give in three days and presents to buy for Mavis and the baby. Since Eve hates hospitals with a passion, despises giving and attending parties and definitely abhors shopping, trying to find a murderer who tortures people by burning their bare feet is a walk in the park, by comparison.

And then the clerk from the baby store who sold Eve the presents disappears. An unwed pregnant mother, Tandy Willowby met Mavis at their birthing center several months prior. While Mavis and Leonardo co-hab, the father of Tandy’s baby is no longer in the picture, so Mavis has taken extra time to give Tandy friendship and support. When Tandy fails to show at the baby shower and Eve finds the wrapped baby gift, the packed maternity bag and bone dry plants in Tandy’s apartment, Eve suspects that Tandy has been snatched.

Eve is a Homicide cop, not Missing Persons, but she has made a promise to Mavis to find Tandy. When a spate of similar disappearances is turned up by the MPU, disappearances that ended with murdered bodies of mothers or babies, Eve is allowed to become primary investigator on this second case.

Those readers who are this far along into the In Death series know how Robb writes. They know that she does not identify anyone by both first and last names and provide their physical description unless that character is either intended as a victim, a perpetrator, a witness or a person possessing a piece of the puzzle.

And the experienced In Death reader knows to watch for Robb’s slithery coincidences of times, places and names. Thus, two seemingly innocent and descriptive paragraphs, placed early in the novel and pages apart, alert the reader to the very real probability that Tandy’s baby’s life and Natalie Copperfield’s death are but two sides of the same murderer’s coin.

As usual, Robb uses the entire team across the two cases. Eve, Roarke and Peabody are center stage. Mira and Feeney are further in the background than usual, with McNab and Baxter picking up a little airtime in their place. Whitney and Nadine Furst have little more than cameo roles this go round, with Trueheart more mentioned than seen. But each one pulls their weight, serves their purpose, and progresses both the cases and the storyline satisfactorily.

As an aside, it might be good to have a few tissues close at hand as you read. And it’s not that you will need them to wipe your eyes as you cry over the circumstances that Eve must face. Quite frankly, the tissues are to swipe the tears of laughter from your face as you read the scenes with Eve and Roarke in the birth coaching class, at the shower for Mavis and in the hospital during the actual births of Mavis’ and Tandy’s babies. J. D. Robb has absolutely outdone herself this time in both Eve’s and Roarke’s dialogues with each other and in Eve’s sections of what-she-thinks versus what-she-says.

And, for once, the title of the book, Born In Death, is more than a play on words or a psychological insight. Quite literally, a baby lives to know its mother only because another innocent dies.

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Haunted In Death

Haunted In Death_JDRobb_10942599

THE FLAT-EARTH SOCIETY

4 STARS

This entry in J. D. Robb’s In Death series is actually a bridge novella to be read between “Memory In Death” and “Born In Death.” After many novels and just as many high-profile cases, we leave the year 2059 behind. It is early January 2060 and bitterly cold and nasty in NYC.

Eve Dallas and Delia Peabody are staring down at the corpse of Radcliff C. Hopkins III, who has been shot nine times with a 9mm, one of those times by direct contact to the forehead. For Eve, the first problem with this scenario, other than the fact that the man has been dispatched with decided overkill, is that 9mm firearms aren’t in circulation any longer. In fact, guns of all types are banned and have been for several decades.

The second problem with this scenario is the building in which the victim is found. Back in the 1970’s, Rad Hopkins’ grandfather had owned the building. A music producer, Hop Hopkins had run a highly successful club called Number Twelve on the premises until his death from a drug overdose. Since then, the building has had a multitude of short-term owners and is now in significant disrepair. It also has such a reputation for being haunted that even Roarke wouldn’t buy it when it went up for auction several months prior.

The third problem is that Eve finds, in a section of wall recently cut open in the club’s upstairs living quarters, a skeleton. This skeleton has a bullet hole in the forehead, holds a beautiful, well cared for diamond clip in one bony hand and a very clean but recently fired 9mm gun is by the other.

To add to all this, Eve, as she peruses the skeleton, is assaulted by sudden and crippling cold. And she hears the husky lilt of Bobbie Bray, a legendary songstress who had performed almost exclusively at Number Twelve. At least she had until the day she disappeared without a trace from that very apartment 85 years ago.

So, now, Eve has two murders on her plate. She also has a crime scene that emanates otherworldly manifestations that literally reach out and touch the various detectives and sweepers as they work. And none of these many instances of voices or touches can be justified logically; there are no electronic devices, jammers or scanners nearby, or even far away, that relate.

Because this novella has scarcely a hundred pages, all the normal action and all the discussions that we are used to in the full size entries are compacted. Unfortunately, this story feels more like an expanded outline for a major novel than a piece originally meant, from the start, to be a novella. And this is the first of Robb’s novellas that have relegated Roarke to a cardboard cutout of himself. Frankly, it feels as if his only reason for being in the story is to force Eve to consider the possibility that spirits do exist amongst us.

POSSIBLE SPOILERS FOLLOW:

For those of us who regularly read paranormal suspense and urban fantasy as well as more traditional mysteries and police procedurals, the suggestion that a ghost haunts a building seems quite reasonable. And when Roarke and Peabody repeatedly try to get Eve to even consider the possibility, we see it as the typical fight between being open-minded and being a member of the Flat-Earth Society. However, bridge novellas always have a distinct purpose in a series. And just like the subdued tones of Bobbie Bray’s plaintive melodies slip through the rooms of Number Twelve, that purpose slips into the reader’s consciousness.

In the end, after the murderer is taken down, Eve bears injuries that could not have come from mortal means. She experienced effects upon her body that cannot be accounted for by human or electronic means. She saw a presence that cannot be explained by a hologram. But she cannot accept or even explore the idea that these effects and injuries could have been caused by a ghost, the spirit of a dead soul.

For if Eve considers that idea for even a moment, then she would have to reconsider the source of her nightmares. She would have to admit that those dreams where her father comes back to taunt her with both words and actions, those nightmares that have become almost impossible to awaken from without Roarke’s help, may not be nightmares at all! And that is a possibility that Eve cannot entertain on even the most superficial level. She just can’t.

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Memory In Death

Memory In Death_JDRobb_238141

A BLAST FROM THE PAST

5 STARS

Santa was higher than a kite when he called out “Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!” at the office party. As a matter of fact, he was 36 stories high when he went out the window, screaming “Ho! Ho! Ho!” right to the moment he landed on a pedestrian, killing them both graveyard dead. And one of his elves was very quick in giving up to Eve Dallas the name of the illegals supplier the man had used.

Eve decided to let Peabody take point on the case. Playing the illegals dealer like the proverbial fiddle, Peabody got him to actually incriminate himself – and identify a possibly corrupt cop. Pleased with the results of Peabody’s finesse, Eve leaves the observation room and heads back to her office. Her good feelings are destroyed within moments when she realizes who is sitting in her office waiting for her.

Trudy Lambert was the first foster care parent Eve had been assigned to back in Texas at the age of eight. Verbally sadistic rather than physically abusive like Eve’s father, raping her mind rather than her body, Trudy Lambert was the second living nightmare of Eve’s short life. Forced to clean the kitchen with a toothbrush and locked in a dark room repeatedly, it took a nine-year-old Eve six months and two attempts to escape Trudy successfully.

Now, seeing that nightmare in the flesh after all these years, Eve is decimated. Ordering Trudy out of Cop Central, she tries to flee the station herself but makes it no further than the restroom. Peabody finds her there, essentially incoherent and retching her guts up. When Eve leaves the station, refusing to explain or accept any help, Peabody calls Roarke.

 After hearing the whole sordid tale from Eve shortly thereafter, Roarke knows exactly why Trudy has shown up. And sure enough, the next morning, she appears at Roarke’s main office, demanding two million dollars or she will tell Eve’s entire childhood history to Eve’s superiors and to the press.

Bad move on Trudy’s part. Very bad move. Roarke’s self-taught sophistication blends with his innate business acumen and the streetwise skills of his youth to present a “counter offer” to Trudy that only a pig-headed fool would refuse. Well, Trudy is a pig-headed fool, and two days later, Eve and Roarke find her murdered in her hotel room.

Now, Eve and Roarke must walk a fine line between being investigators and being prime suspects. But more importantly, Eve feels nothing when she looks at the body, no drive to speak for this particular dead, no drive to get justice, nothing at all. It is as if her cop instincts have dried up and she is just going through the motions.

Eve was only one of twelve children placed in Trudy’s care over the years. Surely she was not the only one terrorized and traumatized by the passive-aggressive psychopath. And perhaps she was not the first person Trudy had tried to blackmail, as the woman, with no real visible means of support, possessed some very fine jewelry, some quite expensive clothing and was groomed by products costing thousands.

In this 22nd entry in the In Death series, Robb pens gripping emotional upheaval and significant character growth for Eve. Whether it is Eve’s reaction at the first sight of Trudy, the uneasiness of giving and receiving Christmas gifts or the final confrontation with the killer in front of the mirror in the Interview Room, Robb puts Eve’s self-image and her professional self-concept on the line. Even with Roarke and her marriage providing a rock on which to balance, she still struggles to weather the storm, literally and figuratively. And Robb provides Roarke with a few moments of critical self-awareness also.

Thus Robb brings the year 2059 to a close.

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