Meg Gardiner's new Jo Beckett mystery, "The Liar's Lullaby"

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By Anna Mundow
Monday, June 28, 2010


By Meg Gardiner

Dutton. 353 pp. $25.95

"The Liar's Lullaby" is the third novel by Meg Gardiner to feature Jo Beckett, the forensic psychiatrist whose plucky outlook may at times remind readers of Nancy Drew in her prime. She's the kind of woman who finds that "hanging fifty feet off the ground, with nothing but a void between her and a broken neck, always cleared her head." And we would not be surprised to learn that, like Nancy, Beckett drives a nifty roadster.

This sleuth is not, however, a fearless amateur but a renowned professional, the kind of scientist who goes rock climbing before dawn and is "at her desk by eight," eager to probe the psychological condition of the latest corpse to have landed there. Gardiner's previous Jo Beckett novels, "The Memory Collector" and "The Dirty Secrets Club," established our heroine as an invaluable adviser to the San Francisco Police Department, for which she performs "psychological autopsies in cases of equivocal death." In other words, "she analyzed victims' lives to discover why they had died. She shrank the souls of the departed."

The deceased in "The Liar's Lullaby" is Tasia McFarland, a once-renowned singer-songwriter who is killed while attempting an acrobatic concert stunt. Poised to fly over her 40,000 fans on a zip line while waving a pistol, Tasia tells her terrified manager, "Fame can't protect me . . . Just Samuel Colt." Within minutes she is shot dead in midair, but by whom? Herself? A lunatic fan? A right-wing zealot? The White House may even be involved. For Tasia is not just another washed-up celebrity; she is the ex-wife of the president of the United States.

After this explosive opening, the novel itself becomes something of a high-wire act with suspects and subplots whizzing back and forth between action-packed chapters, defying not so much gravity at times as logic. The main point, it seems, is to keep everything and everyone in motion. If Jo's irrepressible sister, Tina, is "the human version of caffeine," then Meg Gardiner's fiction is perhaps the literary version, jolting rather than coaxing the reader through occasionally frenzied scenes.

The resulting stylistic schizophrenia in Gardiner's writing is particularly apparent in the descriptions, which range from overblown to soft-core with a little New Age philosophizing in between. At one point the crowd is "swept up" in a performance "like wheat pulled forward by a prairie wind." Jo glimpses her boyfriend's "molten core" and "the warrior he had been," but Gabe is also a sensitive soldier who reads Kierkegaard.

Jo and Gabe's love affair is predictably tested and strengthened by the mystery surrounding Tasia's death. As Jo begins to investigate the singer's life and mental state, likely suspects promptly materialize. There is a pathetic loner and obsessed fan who could have stepped out of a Thomas Harris novel. There is that right-wing zealot who calls himself Tom Paine and whose Tree of Liberty" Web site attempts to rally followers against the enemy in the White House. There is Tasia's rock star ex-boyfriend, her ex-husband and her ex-husband's weaselly chief of staff. Each has a secret to protect, and any one of them might have committed murder.

Jo's assignment, however, is to probe the dead, not the living. "Being of Coptic descent, with a basting of Japanese Buddhism and a thick shellac of Irish Catholic education, Jo believed that death didn't equate to annihilation," we learn as she prepares to watch the videotape of Tasia's death, having first "slipped her emotional chain mail into place."

The secrets of Tasia's life lead Jo to the truth of the singer's death, and Gardiner charts that course skillfully. With the eye and ear of a keen reporter, she can capture the speech and manner of a self-important political staffer or a cynical cop, the pretentious ranting of a cyber-patriot or the e-mail venom of a deluded stalker.

The frantic conclusion of "The Liar's Lullaby" is certainly more outlandish than elegant, but perhaps this is fitting. In Jo Beckett's world of tough, passionate women and manly yet sensitive warriors, elegance would seem outdated.

Mundow is a literary correspondent for the Boston Globe and a contributor to the Irish Times.

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