Very Bad Deaths - Spider Robinson (2004)

Spider Robinson was saddled early in his career with a New York Times review that nominated him as "the new Robert Heinlein." Whether or not that's true, what is true is that he's a damn fine writer. He is most famous for his Callahan's books, of which this is not one.

Very Bad Deaths is Robinson's take on a thriller with just a single element, well maybe two, of fantasy or science fiction. Told in the first person, our hero, a suicidal journalist named Russell Walker, is presented with unimpeachable evidence of a horrific crime which is to take place soon.

The unimpeachable source is an old college friend who is a telepath. But reading minds hurts, and reading nasty minds hurts more. The telepath learned of the proposed crime in the simplest fashion possible - he heard it in the killer's thoughts. Of course, the killer was in a private plane flying over the place where the telepath had fled to avoid reading minds. And in the few seconds he was in range, the psychopath didn't think of anything convenient like his own full name, the names of his proposed victims or their addresses. No, rather he dwelt on what he would do to them - what very bad deaths he would inflict.

Thus Robinson neatly turns the usual conundrum about telepathy in mysteries on its head. Walker knows very little, but must act or an innocent family will be tortured physically and psychically in a variety of truly horrible ways by a killer who is the Aristotle of cruelty.

Robinson is like Heinlein in some ways. His characters draw you in, Walker, the telepath, the cop who Walker gets involved, and even the killer are all compellingly drawn. At least the first three are all folks you might like to get to know, the last you devoutly hope you never meet. And you do get to know them all, at least a little, through the pages of the book.

Overall Grade: B+

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