by Spider Robinson



288pp/$18.00/December 2004

Very Bad Deaths
Cover by Stephen Hickman

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Spider Robinson is, perhaps, best known for the humor of the Callahan series.  Wisely, therefore, he eases the reader into Very Bad Deaths, with a humorous opening, which at the same time hints at the darkness which is to follow.  When Robinson first springs the horror on his readers, he has managed to successfully prepare them for what is to follow, which is still told in a breezy manner despite the dreadful situation he sets up.

Very Bad Deaths is the story of middle-aged reclusive columnist Russell Walker, his old college roommate Zandor Zudenigo, and a female Vancouver police officer, Nika Mandiç, who has found her career headed nowhere fast.  The three are united by the knowledge of a grisly murder about to be committed, but know only the vaguest details of the crime.  Often the problem with this type of novel is the protagonist's complete unwillingness to involve the police.  Robinson successfully gets around this cliché by including Mandiç.

His characters are thoughtful and move in a calculated manner, but Robinson has provided them with a tight deadline, which limits the effectiveness of their planning.  Robinson places other restrictions on his characters.  For a variety of reasons which Robinson makes clear early in the novel, Zudenigo, who has the most knowledge of the crime, can't join Walker or, especially Mandiç on their investigations.

Although the villain of the novel, Allen, is not seen until late in the book, his presence as a force of evil is pervasive.  However, Robinson, while making the scope and nature of his amorality clear, does not dwell on it, allowing his readers to get to know the heroes of the novel instead.  Even as the reader is getting used to the idea of Allen as evil incarnate, Robinson is comfortable reminding the reader of Hannah Arendt's description of Adolf Eichmann.

Very Bad Deaths could have been a straight horror novel, but instead Robinson chose to focus on the heroes and their problem solving skills.  The character's attitudes and relationships drive the story and generally don't fall into the clichés of fiction which would have been so easy.  In one of the cases where Robinson does permit his characters to fall into cliché, notably the scene in which Allen and Walker confront each other, the characters are very much aware of the cliché, even going so far to discuss why they are allowing themselves to live a cliché.

Despite the horrific aspect of Very Bad Deaths, which Robinson clearly wanted to drive home to his readers, the book is an enjoyable one for the readers because of Robinson's ability to create sympathetic characters.  At the same time, he is constantly reminding us that tragedy, whether man-inflicted or natural, can strike at any time, perhaps the single most unsettling aspect of the novel.


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