Like many Americans, I first read the name Meg Gardiner in a
column that Stephen King, probably her fiercest champion, wrote in
Entertainment Weekly more than a year ago. King decried
the state of the United States publishing industry, which had
overlooked Gardiner, a native Californian who now lives in England.
The fact that her novels weren't available in the U.S. was a
publishing shame, King argued; here was an unsung, talented
"suspense superstar" who "deserves an audience." Now that I've read
THE DIRTY SECRETS CLUB, her first novel to be published in the
U.S., I'm beginning to see what King was talking about.
THE DIRTY SECRETS CLUB is actually the start of a new mystery
series for Gardiner, whose previous novels have revolved around the
character of Evan Delaney. Her latest focuses on Jo Beckett, a
forensic psychiatrist who lives and works in San Francisco, which,
during the course of the novel, is being rocked by a series of
increasingly destructive earthquake tremors. This is the last thing
Jo needs; although she's professionally savvy and competent, this
tough rock climber also has some emotional scars from the past, one
of which is linked to a long-ago earthquake.
Jo is going to need to grit her teeth and overcome all her
phobias and fears, however, as she tackles one of the most
extraordinary cases of her career --- a case that will challenge
her to delve into her own hidden secrets. The story opens with the
death of Callie Harding, a prominent prosecutor, in an apparent
murder-suicide. Callie drives her brand-new luxury car off a bridge
and onto a shuttle bus below. Jo and the police find important
clues on Callie's body, though --- the words "Dirty" and "Pray"
written in lipstick. It turns out that Callie's demise is just the
latest in a string of violent deaths of rich and prominent San
Franciscans. Jo begins to suspect that these people are connected
via membership in the so-called Dirty Secrets Club, an organization
with which Callie seems to have been intimately involved.
The club invites members to join by confessing (and proving)
their darkest, most shameful secrets. But it hasn't stopped there;
a series of dares has pushed its thrill-seeking members to commit
new, more shocking acts. Is it possible that one of their former
members is taking revenge on a dare gone wrong? Or is the club,
with its obvious potential for blackmail and public humiliation,
simply crumbling under its own weight? When Jo herself is invited
to join the Dirty Secrets Club, she knows she must not only uncover
the truth, but also the skeletons in her own closet.
Jo Beckett is a compelling and likable heroine, and her blend of
toughness and emotional vulnerability should be a good foundation
for this new crime series. Some readers may quibble that Jo, a
practicing psychiatrist, seems to focus more on sleuth work and
intuition than she does on medicine and psychology. But that's a
minor point in what is otherwise a terrific suspense novel, as
high-octane and fast-paced as Callie Harding's BMW. When Stephen
King talks, publishing people listen --- and fans should rejoice as
this new star of suspense finally gets her chance with audiences on
this side of the Atlantic.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on December 29, 2010