“‘Let’s see. Kind is better than cruel-I’m sure of that. Loose is better than rigid. Love is better than indifference. So is hate. Laughing is the best. Not laughing will kill you. Alone is okay. Not alone is way better. That’s about it…and in my life so far there’s not a single one of them that’s always been true.’”
“Very Bad Deaths” by Spider Robinson
What happens when you take a suicidal newspaper columnist with deteriorating health, a self-reclusive telepath, and a random hard-boiled Vancouver cop, and put them together on the trail of a truly sadistic serial killer? You get Very Bad Deaths by Spider Robinson. The book is written from the perspective of Russell Walker (he’s the columnist) and his reunion with an old college roommate. Back then, he knew Zandor Zudinigo as Smelly…his putrid aroma was legendary, but it was also a defense, since, apparently, Zandor was a telepath so sensitive that the only way he could keep people far enough away to stand it was by repulsing them with his scent. Why a telepath so sensitive that he needs scent to repel people away would still go to college is a little beyond me, but, then again, this was the sixties, and it was probably the best way to avoid being drafted.
Either way, Russell hasn’t seen Zandor in years; in the span of time, he’s lost his wife to crippling cancer and gone on the outs with his son, and is contemplating ending it all, despite the quiet life he’s managed to live on a small island not far from Vancouver. Then Smelly comes knocking at his door; Russell is the only person he’s been able to trust over the years, and he doesn’t know who else to go to for help, but he has to go to someone. A freak accident had lead him to read the mind of a man of the utmost cruelty and a sickening plan to find his next victims and do horrible things, things that make horror-porn films like the Saw franchise look like Disney princesses. And, of course, though he doesn’t know how he can help, Russell agrees, because after hearing of this man’s plan, he couldn’t live with himself if he let things go. If anything, it’s worth a try.
His attempts to contact the police on this whim brings him into the path of Nika Madic, a Vancouver cop in a position way below her ability. Nika is incredibly dedicated and by the books, and so when Russell throws her into his wild plans by mentioning that doing so will save lives, she can’t refuse, as much as she’d like to. And once she finds out about what the man plans to do to these innocent people, she definitely can’t turn back. They’re all in this together now, and they set off to find a way to catch the killer and put a stop to it.
Of course, things come to a head when the killer catches on and Russell, Zandor, and Nika find themselves thick in the middle of his new pursuits of cruelty and torture.
The book is an interesting read, an entertaining read, and a quick read. It danced delicately toward the edge of real depth without really ever going over it, though, which was a little disappointing. Spider Robinson is a very engaging writer; he intersperses truly sickening, stomach-turning concepts with dark humour; as someone who has had a loved one die from cancer, he’s good at pulling the heartstrings on the pain of that kind of loss. The ending is satisfactory, but part of me almost wanted more reason behind a good deal of what was included. Technically, for example, Nika is vital to the climax, but her character seemed almost thrown in, not developed to the point where I actually care about her, but I am glad of how Robinson acknowledged that a little in the end. But stories like the Bunny, in a flashback to college about a woman who randomly shows up on a few weekends to have marathon sex with everyone, seem a little superfluous. It’s structured to show how Russell eventually meets his future wife, Susan, but, if that were the case, I almost feel that more could have been developed about Susan other than the acknowledgement of how her death fundamentally changed Russell. I feel the only reason I really gleaned much of that is because I’ve been through it.
I liked it, though. It kept me engaged and entertained, though it’s probably not a book I’d crack open very often. I would definitely be interested to read more of Spider Robinson’s work, though, so if any of you, dear readers, are familiar and have a recommendation, let’s hear them!
Books Read: 27 out of 100.