Obsession With Words

obsession in deathWhen I accepted Obsession in Death by J. D. Robb to review for a blog tour, I had no idea that the author behind the series was actually Nora Roberts. The name J. D. Robb was vaguely familiar to me and I like crime fiction a lot, so I thought I’d give the book a try.

Nora Roberts, in case you are wondering, must be a candidate for the most prolific author of all time. Since she started writing in 1981, she has published well over 200 romance novels and just over 50 novels in the In Death series. Given that her early days were spent writing for Silhouette, it’s true that quite a few of those books are short. But even so, her annual output regularly reaches ten or more novels, which truly boggles the mind. Kind of makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life, doesn’t it? Apparently she writes eight hours a day every day, revises each manuscript three times and likes to write three romances in a row followed by three police procedurals, so as to linger a little in each fictional realm (rather than zip in and out in a fortnight, I presume). And she’s hugely successful – since 1999 every one of her novels has been on the New York Times bestseller list. Whatever you might think of such astounding output, Nora Roberts also wins the award for most philanthropic writer around, channelling a large cut of her earnings into charities for children, the arts and humanitarian aid.

I’m not sure whether it’s surprising or not that I couldn’t finish Obsession in Death. On the one hand, I love Agatha Christie and Lee Child, so I’m no stranger to the prolific author, and the premise for the book sounded intriguing enough. Robb’s police detective is NYPD superwoman, Eve Dallas, and in this outing she is called to the adroit killing of a high-profile criminal defence attorney, a woman with whom Dallas has clashed in court. The job looks neat and tidy enough to be professional, but an inked message on the wall above the body makes it personal. The killer is a self-confessed admirer of Eve Dallas, out to right the wrongs committed against her and clearly seeking her approval. Effectively it’s a serial killer who also happens to be a stalker, leaving dead bodies as love gifts. I thought this had plenty of pulpy potential, a swift easy read with a dash of sensationalism, a spritz of angst and plenty of headlong rushing towards an eleventh hour climax.

On the other hand, I had read a completely ruinous book before picking up Obsession in Death. One of those books that is so outrageously wonderful that everything else pales in comparison. It was Deborah Levy’s novella-length memoir, Things I Don’t Want To Know, written as a response to Orwell’s extended essay, Why I Write. It was devastatingly good. (And yes, I’ll review it soon, once I’ve got over it enough to write something sensible about it.) Undoubtedly that was a factor.

And whilst we’re on the other hand, I should also point out that nothing had warned me in advance that this would be a sci-fi series. Nothing on the blurb or the jacket cover, although the opening lines inform the reader that we’re in 2060. Which is a funny in-the-middle-of-nowhere time to pick, as it’s essentially a recognisable world with slightly different vocab and a few more gadgets. If I’d got further into the story, I would probably have discovered good reasons for the futuristic setting. But I didn’t so I can’t tell you what they were.

Then there’s the romance element. Apparently, Nora Roberts wanted to write in the manner of Mary Stewart, which is why she took on a pseudonym and began a crime series in the first place. It was a way of combining mystery and thriller writing with love stories. Well, by the time of this book, you may imagine that the relationship between Eve Dallas and her now husband, Roarke, is pretty well advanced. Roarke used to be a criminal, but now he simply runs his multi-billion company and helps out with Eve’s cases when she lets him for the fun of experiencing the other side. He is tall, dark and handsome, quite possibly the richest man on the planet, and utterly devoted to Eve. In the opening sections of the story when Eve returns home after a tough day, having forgotten she’s supposed to attend a social function with Roarke, he cancels for both of them and stays home so he can rub Eve’s shoulders and program her dinner into whatever command central produces meals in 2060. He is perfect. It was probably mostly due to Roarke that I gave up about 130 pages in. I just couldn’t stomach him.

It was a perplexing book. The situations were interesting, the characters okay, the dialogue felt natural, there ought to have been all sorts of enticing subplots opening up. But I struggled to get engaged with it at all, felt the crime was approached in a very superficial way and the investigation was flat and forced. I really wanted to like it – how great to enjoy a book in a series and realise you have another 49 to catch up on! But indifference and the press of other books to read meant we parted ways. Fortunately, Nora Roberts does not need my good opinion, nor the royalties from my sales. But if this novel appeals to you, do give it a try; it probably fell into my hands at the wrong moment.



37 thoughts on “Obsession With Words

  1. Love your review! It’s good to hear about Nora Roberts’ philanthropic activities, it’s probably the most uplifting part of everything to do with this book. I don’t think high output necessarily makes for worse writing (the excerpts of Stephen King I have read were all gripping.) However, the additional fact of it being sci-fi would just about have killed it for me.

    • Well quite – I’m a big Agatha Christie fan and she knew how to keep the words coming in a hypnotic way. But the sci-fi element was… odd. Not enough of anything to make it worthwhile. You are so right that her philanthropy is most heartening – she must definitely have her heart in the right place!

  2. Just reading your first paragraph makes me feel tired! How is it possible to write so many words and do it well? I know she has a huge fan base, though. I’ll look forward to your Levy review.

    • I know! I feel just the same! It must be lovely for her fans – just think how little anxiety you would suffer about when the next book was coming out. It would be great. But Levy is on another plane altogether – I’ll still in awe but I hope to write about her book soon.

    • Heh, volcano of creative impetus indeed! And yes, isn’t the prospect of her working life exhausting? You’d think it might be uplifting but…. somehow it does just wear a person out. I’m sticking with my 500 words a week if I’m lucky, which is about all I seem to get done lately.

  3. Well done on the woman for being so prolific, but I had to laugh when I read your comments about the book. I too came across one of her crime books by accident a few years ago, at the library, and was puzzled by the sci fi element of it, by the wishful thinking of Roarke, or the rather flat investigation that I couldn’t quite muster enough interest in.

  4. What a relief! Imagine if she was that prolific and good, too. Thank you for erasing my envy so quickly. I don’t begrudge her success or readers. A friend of mine’s mother devoured harlequin romances for stress relief and when I started working, I met a few women at my first workplace who did the same. So bless her for that.

    • Absolutely – the comfort of always knowing how things will turn out is reading prozac, and an essential part of the sparse comforts of existence. What would we do without it? But at the same time, no need for a literary author like yourself to feel anything other than glad someone else caters for that part of the market! 🙂

  5. perhaps the first in the collection was good, but the rest are just formulaic and tedious. like Danielle Steele, she wrote two awesome stories, her first two. then she put everything afterward into a template and changed the place names and proper nouns. boring.

    way to give it the college try though!

    • I do love that phrase ‘the college try’. I must try to get it into ordinary conversation more often. I remember my nan being keen on Danielle Steele and she did give me one to (college) try, though I can’t recall it at all. Isn’t it odd that the most money can be made out of the least innovative creativity? No wonder authors hit the bottle so often!

      • people like empty calories and microwave food. same with their reading. it gives them the same feeling if reading without the thinking. it’s TV in print really. my grandma was a romance novel fiend. she said she just liked the easy if it. I could see that.

  6. I’ve also just had the experience of reading a book that I loved so much it’s left me feeling I’ll never be able to find anything I can bear to read again. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy this one, by the sound of it!

    • Oh Harriet, now I am so curious to know which one! Whisper the title to me in an email or something. You are quite right – this is not a book I’ll be handing over to you anytime soon (though I have just started Benjamin Black’s Philip Marlowe continuation and am loving it).

  7. I’m exhausted at the thought of such prolificity (is that a word?)! But gladdened by her charitable donations. What I wonder is can Nora Roberts possibly gain any creative satisfaction or fulfilment when writing at such a pace?

    • I’ve just realised an embarrassing thing: I was offered a freebie – can’t remember why – from that dreaded place the other day (hate shopping there but had to, reason forgotten) and I mistook Roberts for Webster! I thought they were offering me a free copy of Colm Toibin’s latest (as if) ! So now I’ve got an NR on my K…… which I may never read!

    • It’s a odd situation, isn’t it? She must gain satisfaction or else why do it, but I think for a lot of authors it’s carving something new out of the material of existence that brings the rewards. Still, the charity work does lift the whole venture into a much brighter better realm. I did have to laugh ruefully at your freebie copy – that is exactly the sort of mistake I would make! Never mind, given the philanthropy, I think we can both put our experiences down to fulfilling our civic duty. 🙂

  8. Glad she’s a philanthropist. Maybe James Patterson got the idea from her – but it’s nice that these hugely popular and prolific authors give back. (Although I’m sure lots of others do more quietly). I know I have the first … In Death one in the depths of my TBR somewhere – might be fun to look at and see if she’s changed over the years or just kept to the formula!

    • I loved your review, Annabel, so I hope you didn’t mind too much having to get through the book to write it! At least now we know that the formula really hasn’t changed much. 🙂 But it is always so heartening to hear of people with a lot of money using it to endow philanthropic ventures – it brings balance into the world and MUST be good for their karma.

  9. Too bad the book was not all that you were hoping. I did not know all that about Nora Roberts though and wow, is that woman a writing machine! Looking forward to hearing about this fabulous memoir you liked so much!

    • Lol! She is a machine indeed! Not your kind of book, Stef, but you’d like Deborah Levy and I think you’d really like all the Notting Hill Editions books. Gorgeous essays in lovely little clothbound volumes. The ultimate temptation! 😉

    • I do admire her work ethic, too. How did she manage to bring up children AND write at that rate? My life was in constant disruption from my family, and really they were not that much trouble! thank you for the lovely compliment, dear Care.

  10. This book was sent to me in error. I sent it back for a refund and now I’m glad I did. I did not know the author was Nora Roberts, either. I’ve never been tempted to read her. I see both names constantly on the sale table at my bookstore though.

    • That was good instinct to go for the refund, Grad! I read some sort of scary statistic that suggested every minute three books by Nora Roberts were sold (or something, I confabulate). So it’s no wonder they are there on the sale table! Think how many of her books must be in circulation – it’s mind-boggling.

  11. Pingback: The first in a long line of crime novels | Annabel's House of Books

  12. I love these J.D. Robb books, ever since I got the first two in a bag of romance novels passed on by another friend with small children. I saved them out (the rest got passed on) and have been reading them ever since. I think once or twice I might have reviewed one.
    Roarke is too perfect in the recent novels. He has a lot of backstory, which makes that easier to bear if you’ve been with him all along.
    And, of course, you know I love SF.

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