Saturday, January 8, 2011

"The Dirty Secrets Club" by Meg Gardiner

Jo Beckett is a forensic psychiatrist called to the scene of a traffic accident in which several are dead or injured. One of the dead bodies is Callie Harding, a tough prosecutor with the word "dirty" written on her thigh in lipstick. She's the driver of the vehicle, which she drove off a bridge and into an oncoming mini-van. Lt. Amy Tang gives Jo free reign to get the why behind Callie's actions. Was it suicide or something much more sinister. The word on Callie's thigh soon leads Jo to the club of the title, in which privileged high-rollers divulge their worst sins seemingly just for the thrill of it. Members of the club are dying at an alarming rate, and it would appear to be linked to the actions of a couple of participants, who double-crossed and brutally beat an aspiring member. He wants the names of all the members so he can get revenge. Things get dicy when the killer and his lackey - nicknamed Skunk - believe Jo has the names he wants.

It's hard to believe this mess came from the same author who delivered such outrageous and thrilling action-suspense novels like "Crosscut" and "Kill Chain". Gardiner has dumped the Evan Delaney series to start anew with a different protagonist. I'm assuming it's because the book covers can include the lucrative word "forensic" in the heroine's job title and sell a few extra copies. Because really, there's nothing Jo accomplishes or uncovers that couldn't be done by, oh say, A DETECTIVE INVESTIGATING THE CRIME! It makes very little sense. Neither does the club that sets the whole book in motion. Sorry to state the obvious, but once you start telling people your secret, it's not exactly a secret anymore, is it? Despite the old saying "two can keep a secret if one of them is dead", none of the supposedly intelligent and successful club members seem to take that on board. And if the secrets are bad enough that the possible exposure would drive them to suicide, why the hell divulge anything in the first place? Gardiner attempts to provide reasons, but they ring false. I mean, one character jumps off a bridge to prevent his secret - he participated in a gangbang in which the female participant later went crazy and drowned herself - from becoming public knowledge, only to write about it in his bloody suicide note! Huh? And a secret of that nature wouldn't hurt his career - here in Australia you can get your own television show out of it.

The killer and his accomplice and the reasons for their revenge are revealed early on, further killing most of the suspense. Gardiner demonstrates her skill with action sequences through car chases, on-foot pursuits and the like, but is continually frustrated by the confines of working within a conventional crime thriller framework. Couple that with a gratuitous and unnecessary cameo from Jesse Blackburn, a character from the Evan Delaney novels, and it would appear that Gardiner isn't quite willing to leave the more action-oriented books behind. However, there being two more Jo Beckett novels, I'm guessing they're selling well and it could be a while before we return to the more interesting and thrilling Evan Delaney series.

As for Jo Beckett, like I said, there seems to be no good reason why a forensic psychiatrist should be doing something the police can do just as well. And she comes from the school of female protagonists with Haunted Pasts (dead husband) and Debilitating Fears (claustrophobia), seemingly to give her personality, but serving only to make her tiresome. She bangs on about her dead husband to the point of tedium and the book takes its sweet time in revealing how he died and why she feels responsible. And her developing relationship is straight out of romantic suspense hell. Gabe Quintana is a pararescueman who used to belong to the Air National Guard and is always around to provide a solid shoulder for Jo to cry on and help her to absolve her guilt. He was so unbelievably perfect I expected wings to grow out his back at any moment.

"The Dirty Secrets Club" was mildly diverting while I read it, but the more I thought about it after I finished it, the more I disliked it. A ridiculous premise, an author seemingly out to score points with the lucrative forensic crime market crowd and an abundance of cliches and contrivances combine to deliver one of the more cynical, derivative and silly novels on the shelves. Just wait until you get to one villian's confession - it's straight out of Scooby-Doo!

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