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Very Bad Deaths
Spider Robinson
Baen, 288 pages

Very Bad Deaths
Spider Robinson
In 1973, Spider Robinson moved to Nova Scotia, where he met and married Jeanne Robinson, a choreographer/dancer, and founder of Halifax's modern dance company, Nova Dance Theatre. Both Robinsons collaborated on the multiple award-winning Stardance. The Robinsons now live in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Spider Robinson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Callahan's Con
SF Site Review: The Free Lunch
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Donna McMahon

Though it sounds like the title of an anthology, Very Bad Deaths is a new novel (I believe, his twenty-ninth) from science fiction icon Spider Robinson. This book represents something of a departure for Robinson, being neither comedic fantasy like his long-running Callahan series, nor straight SF, like the Stardance books. Instead, it's set in current day Vancouver, and though it has fantasy (or at least ESP) elements, could best be described as a detective thriller.

Russell Walker, a nocturnal, coffee-addicted newspaper columnist, is jerked abruptly out of a spiralling depression when he is visited by a friend he hasn't seen in decades. The friend is a telepath and he wants Walker to help him prevent some murders that have not yet been committed.

With the clock ticking down to horrific deaths and himself appointed as "Speak-to-Cops," Walker wrestles with whether to try and interest police in a telepathic tip about a villain he can't name or identify, or try his hand as an unlikely amateur detective.

In preparing to write this review, I decided that I wanted to cross check my own biases, so I conscripted three readers -- a fifty-something, a sixty-something, and one fan in her twenties. (I'm a forty-something.) Though the confessed Spider fan was most positive about the book, I found a high level of consistency in reader response.

Anyone who has read much of Robinson's writing will recognize the ectomorphic baby boomer protagonist whose back story is more than loosely autobiographical. Two of my readers tired of Walker quickly, finding him very much at odds with his billing (delivered by another character) of being open-minded, tolerant, kind and gentle.

All my readers found Zandor Zudenigo, the telepath, to be the most sympathetic character. I enjoyed Robinson's portrayal of an eccentric, intelligent, sensitive man trying to function in a world of blaring mental broadcast, and I was left wanting more -- always a good sign. In contrast, the cartoonish supervillain is a torturer-murderer who makes Robert Picton, Jeffrey Dahmer and Hannibal Lecter look like beginners. I couldn't see any good reason for this excess other than as a contrived and absurd exercise in making Walker's ethical dilemma clear cut.

Spider Robinson has never been noted for reticence in expressing his views (after all, he makes a good part of his living taking umbrage in the pages of The Globe & Mail), but I found his opinion dumps wearing after a while, especially when they interrupted the action at increasingly improbable times. Polling my reader team, I discovered that the older readers found it annoying and our youngest reader was least bothered. Everyone remarked, with varying degrees of amusement, that Robinson remains intensely American in his attitudes to things like highways and firearms, despite living in Canada for three decades. And as current or former Vancouverites we all enjoyed recognizing the accurately described details of this area, though we thought that giving a fictional name to only one very obviously identified spot ("Heron Island") was glaringly silly.

One of my concerns in reviewing Very Bad Deaths was that I wasn't sure how Robinson's rambling reminiscences about the 60s would sell either to people who grew up well before Woodstock, or to those born in later decades. Interestingly, only my oldest reader wearied of the excursions to 1967, even though they went on far longer than was justified by any contribution to the plot. The rest of us sat back and enjoyed Robinson's chatty, humorous narration.

Very Bad Deaths reads like segments of two different books sandwiched together -- almost as if Robinson couldn't make up his mind what kind of a book he wanted to write. The first section is closest to being a detective yarn and it's written in Robinson's trademark laid back style, complete with 60s flashbacks. The second part is a protracted and violent torture/action sequence that reminded me forcibly of The Silence of the Lambs.

Unfortunately, neither half is very successful. The detective plot is thin and stitched together with improbable coincidence. Moreover, Walker does not solve his mystery, nor does he vanquish the villain -- he is thrust through the story by events that come out of left field. The last part of the book is taut with anger, but is robbed of much of its tension by the egregiousness (and talkativeness) of the villain and the knowledge that since this is a first person narrative, the protagonist obviously survived. And those readers who found the narrator abrasive and "preachy" simply didn't care if he survived to the end.

I find it difficult to identify to what audience Very Bad Deaths is going to appeal strongly. Readers who enjoy the genial first part are liable to be dismayed by the violent second part. And fans of bloody revenge fantasies are unlikely to sit through the meandering lead-in.

Copyright © 2005 Donna McMahon

Donna McMahon discovered science fiction in high school and fandom in 1977, and never recovered. Dance of Knives, her first novel, was published by Tor in May, 2001, and her book reviews won an Aurora Award the same month. She likes to review books first as a reader (Was this a Good Read? Did I get my money's worth?) and second as a writer (What makes this book succeed/fail as a genre novel?). You can visit her website at

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