D. D. Warren is rapidly becoming one of my favorite characters in detective fiction. A veteran Boston police investigator with voracious appetites for food and sex, she gets plenty of one --- without gaining an ounce --- and not nearly enough of the other. As a result, there is a bit of an hysterically funny, smart-alecky edge to her that alone could probably carry each and every book in which Lisa Gardner chooses to feature her. However, as Gardner’s latest work demonstrates, there is much more happening in these pages than bright, snappy dialogue. The storylines that weave their way through Warren’s world are smart, riveting and addictive.
The narration alternates among the stories of three different women. Danielle Burton is the sole survivor of a horrific attack during her childhood that left her entire family dead. She is badly damaged, but struggles valiantly against the residuals of her emotional injuries, working as a hospital nurse in an acute care pediatric psychiatric unit, attempting to help children who are not quite as fortunate --- if that is the right word --- as she was. We next meet Victoria Oliver, whose life is a waking nightmare, one in which she struggles to raise a child whose problems affect her every moment.
Danielle’s and Victoria’s stories are told in the first person; the third part of the novel, told in the third person, is given over to Warren, who is investigating two cases that both involve the murders of entire families who have nothing in common with each other except for eerie parallels that may or may not be coincidental. Warren’s focus slowly but steadily moves to the pediatric unit where Danielle works, as she begins tying together the seemingly disparate threads of her twin investigations. When a third horrific incident --- which again seems unrelated to the murders of the two families --- takes place in Danielle’s unit while she is on duty, the shadow of suspicion falls upon her.
A word here: bad things happen to children in LIVE TO TELL. And children do bad things as well. We all can think of that kid in grade school who we never would have trusted with a pet, but as medical science zeros in on causes and preventions, there is a new awareness of the situation. Gardner obviously did yeoman’s research on the topic, and one cannot help but empathize with the parents of children so afflicted as well as the caregivers who minister to their needs. It is such a riveting element of the book that it almost takes attention away from the mystery surrounding the multiple murders. There are a number of suspects here, all of whom are possibilities yet none of them perfect. As one character says in the final quarter of the novel, “(W)ho’s left to hurt you?” The journey toward the discovery of the who and the why is a seat-of-the-pants ride all the way to the end of the book.
If there is a weakness in LIVE TO TELL, it is that at some points Warren almost seems to be making guest appearances in her own novel. There are a number of interesting characters, including a new love interest for her, one who will no doubt be back in the next installment of the series. Still, Warren is such a unique character that sharing the narrative spotlight does not seem to entirely become her. Nonetheless, the plot is so strong and unforgettable that you may not even notice Warren’s relative absence.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 30, 2010