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Onyx reviews: The Liar's Lullaby by Meg Gardiner

The police call on forensic psychiatrist Jo Beckett in cases where a death could be accidental, natural, murder or suicide. She just happens to be at a concert at a San Francisco arena when country singer Tasia McFarland dies while making a flamboyant entrance to the stage for one of her performances.

Tasia has a history of bipolar illness, was rambling about conspiracies in the last minutes of her life, and had a gun in her hand when she slid down a zip line from a luxury box to the stage while a pair of helicopters pretended to strafe the stadium. The bullet that killed her was a through-and-through and her gun was handled by concertgoers, so the forensic evidence is inconclusive. The gun might have gone off by accident, someone else may have guided her hand, or she could have killed herself. 

She didn't leave a suicide note, but she wrote a cryptic song called "The Liar's Lullaby" the night before she died that may contain hints about her mental state. The song could also be interpreted as an indictment of the man to whom she used to be married—a man who is now President of the United States. There are unconfirmed reports that she met with him clandestinely shortly before her death.

Tasia used to post on a message board for a white supremacist group that espouses conspiracy theories, fueled by long, eloquent posts by a fundamentalist who identifies with Thomas Paine, a 19th century revolutionary. After her death, the group suggests that the president and his inner circle conspired to silence Tasia. 

Beckett and her friend, SFPD Lt. Amy Tang, aren't surprised when pressure to close the case quickly comes from the highest levels. This is the kind of publicity a sitting president could do without. They don't care about the truth—they're willing to accept any plausible theory that won't embarrass the government. They pull out all the stops, getting investigators audited, launching immigration hearings against family members and changing military orders to encourage a hasty resolution.

Beckett also finds herself at the center of a media frenzy. Tabloid reporters are willing to do anything to capitalize on a high-profile story with legs, including stalking Beckett, asking inane, leading questions, broadcasting rampant speculation and unsubstantiated innuendo, and skewing facts to meet the expectations of partisan audiences. Gardiner leaves it to her readers to decide which group is more outrageous—the right-wing radicals or the journalists. At least one reporters gets a come-uppance, though, in one of the book's most entertaining scenes.

Beckett hits roadblocks at every turn as she tries to unwrap the mystery of the victim's life. At the time of her death, Tasia was involved with singer Searle Lecroix. She also may have had a stalker. Beckett can't exactly interview Tasia's ex-husband, some of Tasia's medical records are missing, and the picture painted by her sister and friends is contradictory. Ace Chennault, Tasia's ghostwriter is sitting on a potential treasure trove of information—his biography of the recently deceased celebrity is guaranteed to be hugely successful. All he will reveal, though, is that the book contains explosive revelations about her brief marriage to the president.

The Liar's Lullaby is a a cleverly constructed mystery and a fast-paced thriller. Bomb threats and assassination attempts place Beckett continually in jeopardy and test her wits and her gumption. The case and its repercussions put a strain on her relationship with Gabe Quintana, who becomes a target of the political pressure applied against Beckett. He proves to be a valuable ally, however, as the book speeds to a climax. In the final section, Gardiner delivers surprise after surprise as secret identities are revealed and hidden motives are disclosed. 

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