Tour’s Books Blog

July 10, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: The Dirty Secrets Club by Meg Gardiner

  • Title: The Dirty Secrets Club
  • Author: Meg Gardiner
  • Type: Suspense
  • Genre: Murder mystery
  • Sub-genre: Secret club
  • My Grade: C+ to B- (3.7*)
  • Rating: PG-17
  • Warning: Graphic violence

“Compulsively Readable” is a phase that gets overused these days for books of all types, but especially thrillers and suspense novels, but that’s what The Dirty Secrets Club is, ‘compulsively readable’. It’s like potato chips, once you start eating them, you just can’t stop, even though they aren’t really great and you certainly don’t need them. There is a difference between ‘compulsively readable’ and a great book.  The plot is not original, but the added twists make it interesting and the ending makes it worth the trip – even through the duller bits in the middle.

The Dirty Secrets Club opens with a minor quake causing an office building where sports superstar was at a meeting.  He calls a woman nicknamed ‘Hardgirl’ to the building and dares her to pull a stunt with him before the building gets locked down. As they exit, he steals a Willie Mays baseball from the lawyer’s office and on the street outside dares her to return it without getting prosecuted.

Dr Jo Beckett is a forensic psychiatrist who favors Doc Martins, cargo pants and heavy neck scarves in San Franciso’s chilly winter weather. She loves the outdoors and rock climbing – not a girly-girl bone in her body. A widow of 2 years, she still misses her husband. Jo’s the person the cops call in to get inside the head of a suicide or criminal mind to explain WHY things happened. Emergency call outs at night are not exactly the norm, so when Lieutenant Amy Tang insists she get to a crime scene NOW, she’s a little confused – and more so when she sees it’s a horrific car crash. Assistant U. S. Attorney Callie Harding deliberately drove her BMW through the guardrail at the foot of Stockton Street, went airborne and speared an airport shuttle, killing her, her passenger and two people on the shuttle. Callie’s boss is already at the scene, so there’s a turf war brewing. Worse is the fact this seems to the third high profile death in 6 days, 48 hours apart. The clock is ticking and the cops need help trying to figure out what’s driving these people to kill themselves before the next one dies. Callie leaves them two clues – the word ‘Dirty’ written on her thigh with lipstick and the word ‘Pray’ written on the inside of her arm. Her license plate is ‘Hardgirl’, a nickname she got for being such a tough prosecutor.

As Jo talks to the rookie cops who chased Harding, she asked all kinds of questions, trying to determine if she was drugs. Something about the bodies is nagging at her and as Officer Cruz tells her Harding’s pupils were not dilated, she realizes the passenger is alive. She races back to the wreck and the paramedics rescue the young woman who whispers, “Stop it,” as she loses consciousness. Jo goes back to badly shaken Cruz who finishes his story by telling her that when Callie pulled her car alongside his, she hit the window with her hand and screamed, “Help me!”

At this point the plot starts dragging form its original headlong pace and starts feeling more like a mystery than a suspense thriller.  Jo gets the information on the other suicides in the morning. One of the, fashion designer Maki and his long time boyfriend, died in a boat fire. She heads to Moffat Field and the combat search and rescue squad – people she knows from personal experience. Gabe Quintana, now a civilian with them, is coming off shift and takes her for some food at a local taqueria where they sit at old picnic tables to eat and talk about the deaths on the boat. Despite news reports of them burning to death, they were shot in a murder suicide and Maki was the shooter. The fire was started with gasoline and on the deck was the word, “pray.” Something – or someone – is driving these people to commit suicide.  Someone who knows their secrets?

Now it’s a game of ‘beat the clock’ but the clock is on fast forward and Jo is playing catch up. A talk with Callie’s ex-husband goes very wrong when they start going through her records at her condo. Jo beats a hasty retreat from him and his temper.  A slip of paper saying ‘Welcome to the Dirty Secrets Club’ starts unraveling the mess.  But what kind of secrets could drive people to such spectacular suicides?  And why did Callie force her law intern,  to stay in the car as she drove it to a certain death?

The compressed time frame keeps the book’s pace moving, though it isn’t till the end that it picks back up to the rate of the opening chapters. While the concept of a ‘Dirty Secrets Club’ and the whole challenging others to outrageous or illegal acts to get points has been done (even CSI has used this trope), there are several twists that made the ending a unexpected. One major flaw is Jo’s epiphany about her husband’s death not being her fault.  That whole scene was not very believable.  The other is Jo’s nerdy, hypochondriac neighbor, Ferd.  He’s supposed to be comic relief and Gardiner really forces these scenes.  They would best be left out all together as they are just really annoying and disrupt the story without adding a thing.  In general, Jo was a believable, if a bit angsty and guilt ridden, two dimensional character. Gabe and his interest in her added a little ‘romantic interest’ to the plot and gave her the muscle that the cops should have been providing. It did seem rather incredible that a forensic psychiatrist should be off running loose on politically sensitive police investigation like this, especially once the cops grab onto the whole ‘Dirty Secrets Club’ thing.

There are several horrific deaths and attempts on Jo’s life as well. Who is pushing is known thru the book and the why is told in the character’s memories, but that’s only part of it mystery. There are other secrets concerning The Dirty Secrets Club and it’s those secrets that were real brain twisters. The solution to both of these secrets was a bit hard to swallow, the first being less credible than the second.

As with most suspense books it reads well enough that the shortcomings don’t seriously disrupt the plot except here and there where they are impossible to ignore, like Ferd scenes. While I wondered at the lack of police assistance to Jo throughout, the fact that Any Tang is a Lieutenant working a scene without Inspectors, the failure of the police to pull on many of the same loose ends as Jo, and her working out certain key elements when she is not a police/law enforcement insider were a hard to credit, the story didn’t stagger too much under their weight until the very end. Such credibility failures are ubiquitous in suspense thriller genre. Certainly it was more believable than Clive Cussler, if less fun.

The Dirty Secrets Club has too many over used elements to be considered an original, or groundbreaking work. It was solidly written and held you for the whole 400 pages without getting too dull in the middle or too outrageous at the end.  No question it was somewhat addictive reading despite its flaws.  Certainly Jo Beckett isn’t a John Rain, Jack Reacher or Alex Cross, but she has promise. Overall, I thought this a good to very good read and I would buy another of her books.

Who would enjoy this book:  Fans of Alex Cross and Mary Higgins Clark.

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