January 06, 2005

BOOKS: Very Bad Deaths, Spider Robinson (2004)

One of the most appealing things about Spider Robinson's writing is that his characters are such good people. Occasionally, they're so good -- decent and kind and funny and humane to a fault -- that you could almost become annoyed with them; the Callahan's Bar series falls into this pit once in a while.

The principal villain in Robinson's Very Bad Deaths is not a good person; he's the most evil villain I can ever remember Robinson creating. Allen is a serial sadist, who has studied all of the ways pain can be inflicted -- physical, emotional, mental -- and become a master of all of them. And the torture/murders he's planning to commit next week will be his masterpiece.

Unfortunately, those plans have been discovered by Zudie, who reads minds (this is the only remotely SF element in this book, which is otherwise a solidly mainstream thriller). Unfortunately, Zudie doesn't have enough details to find either Allen or the family he plans to kill. He can't go to the police himself; reading minds, it turns out, is intensely painful, and Zudie lives in remote isolation, avoiding human contact as much as possible.

That's where our narrator, Russell, comes in. Russell was Zudie's college roommate, and is one of the very few people whose company Zudie can tolerate for any length of time. Zudie assigns Russell the task of convincing the police that the murders are going to happen, and helping them find Allen.

It's a pretty nifty premise, and Robinson does a nice job of working out all the possible twists and complications arising from this set of characters. Russell and Zudie (and Nika, the police officer who winds up helping them) are solidly in Robinson's tradition of ultra-decent people, and they are well aware of the ethical implications of their actions at every turn.

As always, Robinson's prose is smooth and entertaining, without being flashy or calling attention to itself. Don't let the horribly ugly cover art chase you away; this is a solidly crafted thriller.

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