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Onyx reviews: The Dirty Secrets Club  by Meg Gardiner

Secrets have power, so long as they remain secrets. Once the information spreads to a wider circle of people, they become dangerous. This is the premise behind The Dirty Secrets Club, a novel about a group that requires applicants to divulge and confirm a personal secret that could destroy them were it to become public.

Several people have already died by the time the San Francisco police call upon forensic psychologist Jo Beckett. She calls herself a "deadshrinker," an expert in psychological autopsies in cases of "equivocal" deaths—incidents that may be accidents, suicides, acts of self-defense or murders. She profiles victims to determine if there's reason to believe they killed themselves or if the police should focus their attentions elsewhere.

The crime scene to which she is called involves a high-profile victim, Callie Harding, a celebrity prosecutor. She was involved in a high-speed police chase that ended when she crashed her car—possibly on purpose—off a bridge and through the roof of an airport shuttle minivan below. Harding died on the scene, along with several van passengers. Her passenger, an office intern, survived but was seriously injured.

Jo is summoned by SFPD Lieutenant Tang because this is the third incident in a few days involving  public figures. A fashion designer and his lover perished in a fire aboard a yacht. A cardiac surgeon dies of an apparent heart attack shortly after his son's drug overdose. Code words are left at the scenes: "Pray," in one case and "Dirty," written in lipstick on the prosecutor's leg. The spacing of the previous incidents implies that another death might occur within forty-eight hours, a ticking clock that adds urgency to Jo's investigation.

Besides revenge, the Dirty Secrets Club is a haven for blackmail and all the other crimes that arise out of the keeping and revealing of secrets. Not satisfied with simply sharing secrets, members challenge each other to risky and public games of Truth or Dare. Gardiner lets readers know early on that Tang's suspicion of a crime spree is correct. A man called Skunk is tracking down club members, punishing them on behalf of the victim of a dare gone wrong that involves half a million dollars and injuries that left the man talking through a speech synthesizer. The club is run in cells, which means that no one person knows who all the members are. However, Skunk is determined to root out everyone responsible for his boss's victimization.

Of course, Jo has an arsenal of issues. She became claustrophobic after being trapped in a car with her father under a collapsed viaduct during the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. She also has a dirty secret pertaining to her dead husband, the nature of which is revealed a bit at a time over the course of the novel.

Jo is a strong and appealing heroine, who has personal problems but is still functional. She has good relationships with her boyfriend and her sister, and the traumas of her past do not prevent her from doing her job. Her claustrophobia, for example, is simply a detail and not pivotal to the plot, like it might have been in lesser hands. The secondary characters, including an annoying hypochondriac neighbor with a pet monkey (that plays a pivotal role late in the book), are vivid and consistent.

However, the plot is convoluted and difficult to follow at times. The earth isn't the only thing shaky about the book (which features several minor earthquakes to remind readers where it is set). In the final analysis, the behaviors of certain characters are difficult to credit, and the ending suffers from a scene of exposition where one of the guilty parties tells Jo everything because he thinks he's going to get away with it.

This is American author Gardiner's debut in the U.S., though she has already published several novels that are popular in England. It's also her first book featuring Jo Beckett after writing several in another series.

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