Very Bad Deaths
by Spider Robinson
Review by Paul Haggerty
Baen Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 074348861X
Date: 01 December, 2004 List Price $18.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
SF has shied away from telepathy stories for the last few decades, but Robinson comes up with an intriguing, and horrifying, tale about a man caught in the psychic web of a mass serial killer and a telepath whose talents have made her a recluse. Thoughtfully done. Very Bad Deaths is a tale of three people who desperately don't want any part of the job they have been called upon to perform. To make matters worse, it's a job that's been assigned to them by their own consciences, which leaves them no one else to blame.
The book is written half in the present and half in the past, the narrative running through the present and then flashing back whenever a plot detail needs further explaining. It starts out with the main character, Russell Walker, living in self-imposed semi-exile on an island off the coast of British Columbia following the death of his wife. He is visited by Zandor "Smelly" Zudenigo, an old college roommate, who's come to ask him to help stop the sadistic slaughter of an entire family. Since we don't know anything about Zandor, the book takes an immediate 46-page detour into the past to bring us up-to-date on their relationship.
The story continues in this vein, advancing the plot line a while, and then segueing back to the past to fill in the blanks. The curious thing about this is that the regressions are as interesting as the main plot, even if only slightly related at times. Sometimes it feels as if the author had a large collection of vignettes that weren't enough to make a story on their own, so he decided to use them as back story filler.
So what do you do when you have information that you can't possible have, and therefore can't prove? In this case Zandor has information concerning a sadist that has made an art form out of torture and murder. Unfortunately, Zandor is a telepath who is so sensitive that the proximity of people causes him great pain. He can't take his information to the police in person, even if he thought they might believe him. He's picked up these thoughts through a million-to-one coincidence, and now doesn't know what to do about them. Russell really doesn't want to get involved in this, but the horrific details of what this sadist has planned are too much for him to ignore. They begin plotting ways to get help, and to find out who this sadist really is (since we rarely speak our own names in the privacy of our heads), and do something to stop him.
If the book has one major flaw, it's that it feels like it has a beginning and an end, but no real middle. The heroes embark on their quest, and barely get started before it's short-circuited and the end comes crashing down on them in an exciting turn of events. The conclusion of the plot line (plus the inevitable flashbacks even here) is just as interesting as the set up in the beginning, but comes as a bit of a shock. You've just gotten settled in for the meat of the story, when suddenly you're presented with dessert.
All in all, I enjoyed this book. The main plot had interesting characters, and the flashbacks added depth to them as well as amusing side bits. The villain's depravity was understandable once you got to know him, although I thought he was just a bit over the top. With the caveats listed above, I'd recommend Very Bad Deaths to anyone who wants an enjoyable book with good guys, bad guys, plot twists, and a main character with some interesting opinions on life, which he's happy to talk about anytime.