Edgar Award-winning mystery writer Meg Gardiner has not one but two stellar series: one featuring forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett, and another with investigative reporter Evan Delaney. Both women are supremely capable yet emotionally vulnerable; both have suffered great losses, and both have a tendency to get in over their heads. Good thing, too, because the over-the-top scenarios Gardiner constructs for her characters are part of what makes her novels so wildly entertaining.
"With its taut plotting and bleak desert setting, THE NIGHTMARE THIEF is a great summer read..."
Now, in THE NIGHTMARE THIEF, both of Gardiner's heroines make an appearance, coming at a mystery from two different angles. Evan connects with Jo as she investigates the suspicious death of lawyer Phelps Wylie, a city slicker whose body was found in a remote mine shaft. The police have written off his death as a hiking accident, but Evan is convinced there's foul play. Jo sets out for the desert, her buff but still injured boyfriend Gabe alongside, to trace Wylie's footsteps and gauge his mental state before he died.
But Jo and Gabe are soon thrown headlong into a far more immediately dire situation when they stop to help a motorist in trouble. The Hummer is filled with buzzed kids celebrating Autumn Reiniger's 21st birthday. Her father, a wealthy hedge fund manager, has engineered an extreme adventure party through a company called Edge Adventures, which stages wild role-playing scenarios, many of which focus on clients' darkest fears.
It's soon horribly apparent, however, that this scenario is not role-playing at all. A group of criminals has hijacked the Edge Adventures plan and mounted their own, all-too-real kidnapping and ransom scenario. But these schemers hadn't counted on running into Jo and Gabe, and before too long, everyone's plans are falling apart; the kids, Jo and Gabe are fighting for their lives; and a psychopath pursues his own agenda in the desolate California wilderness.
Meanwhile, back in San Francisco, Evan, Jo's sister, and SFPD detective Amy Tang do their best to work out the mystery of Jo's disappearance, backing their way into the mystery Jo has run into head first. Only the reader has all the pieces of the puzzle, and even then, there are plenty of surprises as this runaway train of a novel barrels along.
With its taut plotting and bleak desert setting, THE NIGHTMARE THIEF is a great summer read, the kind of book you might pull out of your beach bag in the morning and devour by dinner. The villains and partygoers are largely flat characters, but they really serve primarily as vehicles to advance the plot, and it's clear that Gardiner's energies are focused on her protagonists (and rightly so).
Gardiner is probably best known for her Evan Delaney series, but her more recent psychological suspense novels featuring Jo Beckett have also gained her plenty of fans. THE NIGHTMARE THIEF introduces readers to both compelling characters, each of whom brings her own talents and strengths to bear on the problem at hand. They make great teammates; here's hoping that this first collaboration is not their last.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 1, 2011