The Dirty Secrets Club
By Meg Gardiner
Dutton. 368 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
Imagine being a rich, successful person, top of your game in sports, medicine, television or the law. But you have a secret from your past. Something cruel you might have done when you were too young to know better. Or something extremely kinky that you did for kicks. What would you do to keep your secret safe?
Let's not stop there, or anywhere near it. Life at the top can be oh-so-dull, so imagine spicing it up with a dangerous, exclusive club – so exclusive that each person knows the identities of only one or two of the other members. To join, you have to prove that you have a very dirty secret. To advance through the ranks, you have to perform a risky task, progressively getting more reckless and life-threatening as you achieve the highest status and a black diamond.
Such is the background of Meg Gardiner's thrilling new novel, The Dirty Secrets Club. After indulging in some excitingly crazy stunts, everything seems to go haywire for the club as one of its presumed members, Assistant U.S. Attorney Callie Harding, deliberately kills herself and injures her passenger at the culmination of a frantic car chase.
Or does she? Police call forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett to the scene of the crash, because she has the expertise to determine the state of mind of victims of events that could be accidents, suicide or even murder.
Jo rapidly discovers that Callie's is the third high-profile double-death in a week, following that of a fashion designer and his companion in a boat explosion and the shooting of a celebrity surgeon a few days after his son overdosed. Jo and police officer Amy Tang have 48 hours, they estimate, before the next person dies.
Jo begins to find clues about the existence of the dirty secrets club, and this roller-coaster ride of a book covers her frantic attempts to work out who is a likely next victim, and why Callie has apparently acted completely against type by killing herself and (almost) her young passenger, now under protection in a hospital.
No shrinking violet, Jo thinks nothing of risking her own life in a series of stunts at various California landmarks in her attempts to get to the bottom of things.
Yet she has a vulnerable side, she's a widow and was buried in an earthquake as a child, so there are plenty of tense flashbacks, as well as a budding romance.
But none of this personal stuff gets in the way of the tension, kept taut by the race of events as well as the twists and turns of the plot.
How long will it take the investigators to put all the pieces together, as the time runs out for more potential victims?
Not only is The Dirty Secrets Club full of thrills, spills and danger, with a suitably gripping climax, but the whole caboodle is tied together at the end with a most impressive grasp of plotting, wrong-footing the reader not once but three or four times.
Lara Croft, eat your heart out. This novel is totally filmic, featuring a lead female role an actress might well kill for.
Maxine Clarke is an editor at the scientific journal Nature, and in her spare time blogs at Petrona, http://petrona.typepad.com/.
This review was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 13 July 2008.