In the interest of full disclosure, be warned that I am very fond of this novel, not only due to the writing, plot and characterization, but because it’s the first …in Death novel to openly borrow from an Agatha Christie story (“Witness for the Prosecution”, the play).
Also, given that Calculated in Death, the 36th¹ full length novel in the series (there are also 8 short stories and one novella published so far) is coming out later this month, this review is more due to nostalgia than any urgent need for more reviews for any one title in the series².
Witness in Death is the tenth novel in the series. The world and technology (such as it is)³ of Robb’s future are pretty much established at this point, as are the main relationship dynamics. Roarke and Eve have been married just over half a year, Peabody has been Eve’s aide for just under a year and is at this point dating both McNabb and Charles. This is also one of the three novels in which Chief Medical Examiner Morris is called Morse in the original paperback editions (over a dozen years later, this still bugs me, as Morris is a favorite character of mine).
The (rather terrible) back cover blurb:
Opening night at New York’s New Globe Theater turns from stage scene to crime scene when the leading man is stabbed to death right on center stage. Now Eve Dallas has a high-profile celebrity homicide on her hands. Not only is she lead detective, she’s also a witness–and when the press discovers that her husband owns the theaters, there’s more media spotlight than either can handle. The only way out is to move fast. Question everyone and everything…and in the meantime, try to tell the difference between the truth–and really good acting…
Okay, first things first: everyone in the known universe, along with their little sister and pet parrot, knows Roarke owns the theater. Also, both Roarke and Eve had dealt with media attention before–and not too long before the events of this novel either–so, in a word, the blurb is utter rubbish.
And with that out of my system, let’s get into the review.
As the story starts, Eve is enjoying a rare night off-duty with Roarke. This is also the first time she’s actually seen a live play–which makes the play in question all the more appropriate for a homicide detective. The only way it could be more apropos is by having an actual murder onstage.
It soon becomes evident that Richard Draco, dead as he may be, was no one’s victim; if anything, he victimized everyone around him. As there is no question about the weapon used, and as pretty much any person who ever had any significant contact with Draco had motive to kill him, the only way to narrow the investigation down is to concentrate on opportunity–which still leaves all cast members and a good chunk of the crew as potential murderers. Then the head stagehand is found hanging below the main stage, complete with a handwritten confession note in his pocket.
Contrary to the first impression, this is a “closed room” mystery: there’s a limited number of viable suspects, and while there are some interesting extraneous plotlines–such as Nadine Furst’s past relationship with Draco–it’s pretty clear that only a handful of people could have actually planned and executed the murder. Once Eve starts digging into their pasts, the number shrinks even further.
So it’s not really the mystery that makes re-reading this novel so enjoyable, but the characterization.
In Witness we see Eve vacillate between the law and justice for the first time–considering what manner of crimes Draco has committed throughout his life, was his death anything but justice? She is also still learning to navigate the waters of interpersonal relationships–as partner and friend to Peabody, as friend to both McNabb and Charles.
Furthermore, Eve has yet to grow comfortable with Roarke’s wealth, and is still struggling to come to terms with emerging memories of brutal events from her own childhood. The author uses Eve’s past and her growing self-awareness as part of Eve’s investigative process–all the more because it leads Eve to question how much of her deductions is valid and how much is part of seeking justice/revenge against those who so harmed her when she was but a helpless child. This is, by the way, a recurring theme throughout the series, and part of what makes each novel, and the series as a whole, so fascinating for me.
I particularly enjoy Eve’s and Roarke’s interactions and deepening relationship. At this point, they have known each other for barely over a year and, as much as they love each other, they are still in the “getting to know each other” phase of their relationship.
“He wondered that a woman who was so skilled in observation, in studying the human condition, couldn’t see that what he felt for her was often as baffling and as frightening to him as it was to her.” (Roarke, p 177, paperback edition, Witness in Death)
While this is by no means my favorite …in Death book, it’s high up there in my list. Witness in Death gets a 9 out of 10 from me.
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¹ Yeah, you read that number right
² Not every book series has such a comprehensive Wiki, after all.
³ I know that many readers take issue with this aspect of the series, as it’s quite thin, but considering that the first novel was published back in 1995–remember the size and limitations of those cell phones?–I’m not particularly bothered by it.