Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Dirty Secrets Club by Meg Gardiner

What's behind the double deaths?
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,

This review was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 13 July 2008.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The score by Faye Flam

Pickup artists, squid sex and evolution

The Score: How the Quest for SexHas Shaped the Modern Man
By Faye Flam
Avery. 224 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Maxine Clarke

What do pickup artists reveal about the natural world? This is the first question Faye Flam asks in her entertaining book The Score, as she bravely signs up for the Mystery Method's "Seduction Boot Camp" course - all in the interests of her research, of course.
The promise of the boot camp is to reveal to men the secrets of how to get women into bed. Although she is intrigued by the flow charts, diagrams and precision planning, Flam's purpose is much more ambitious than merely learning how to acquire sexual trophies.
Flam, a science writer and former columnist for The Inquirer, wants to know why men feel they need to go on these training sessions. Why does someone who admits to sleeping with 200 women consider himself in need of techniques to find even more of them?
The answer, according to Flam, lies in science. Underlying bizarre enterprises such as the Mystery Method are the biological reasons for the differences between men and women, and the ways in which the billions of species of animals, plants and microorganisms have adapted to reproduce and survive.
Flam follows up this thesis with an idiosyncratic whistle-stop tour of biology. Evolution of the sexes, the Y (male) chromosome, peacock tails, monkey behavior, and more are all breezily described in a framework of analogies with pornography, fidelity, homosexuality, and many other variants on male-female (or same-sex) human relations.
Flam for several years wrote a sex column called "Carnal Knowledge" for The Inquirer, and The Score reads like a collection of newspaper columns, even though it is not. So what you get are pick'n'mix anecdotes, not a seamless chain of logic.
The style works pretty well as far as the animal behavior goes, for example in this account of squid mating: "One [species] grabs the female with skin-ripping hooks. . . . There's just no nice way to inseminate a female in such cases, which creates a problem for the males. Sometimes a female will bite off a male's penis or arms with her deadly beak."
This lurid prose is certainly fascinating, but these straight descriptions of animal behavior are regularly interrupted with cutesy, jovial observations such as "If human males faced these sorts of hazards, it would seem perfectly understandable that they'd gather in pickup classes and related support seminars, there to boost one another's courage to approach the opposite sex."
I'd recommend reading this breezy book as light fare, rather than an attempt to gain scientific insight. It's a frothy concoction of weird and wonderful anecdotes about the bizarre shape of a duck's penis or a chimp's testicles, or how fast the human Y chromosome is going extinct.
If, however, you want scientific insights about how the behavior and evolution of animals relates to why men want to have lots of sex partners, or why some people are homosexual, I would recommend a book such as Why Is Sex Fun? by Jared Diamond.
Flam sets out to ask a big question: Why are men and women different in their attitudes to sex? All her many examples are aimed at convincing the reader that male behavior is controlled by females: The male will "reinvent" himself to fit the female's view of desirability.
In the case of the Seduction Boot Camp, a three-day session of seminars in New York City that costs $2,150 per person and includes "several nights of in-the-field training" amid New York's nightclub scene, she notes how "Future," the course "tutor," is adorned with makeup and jewelry, rather like the tails of the peacocks described in an earlier chapter. Yet neither these embellishments, nor his determined attempts at chatting her up, can persuade her to "cheat on my boyfriend," as she puts it. Still, Future himself says he is content, now that he has the "skills" (as he calls them) to "rotate through a whole merry-go-round of women and add the occasional new one when the opportunity arises."
Flam reflects on the empty nature of this lifestyle, which to her sounds like a full-time job and much harder than monogamy.
In reality, of course, although biology plays a part in our dating decisions, we are not unconscious vessels, and we cannot make general claims about human nature from anecdotal studies such as showing porno flicks to a small sample of gay and straight men and measuring how their penises react (one of the experiments described in this book).
We can smile, though, and wonder at the amazingly bizarre miscellany Flam has collected here.
Just don't try to make a doctoral dissertation out of it.

Maxine Clarke is a science editor at the journal Nature. She also blogs at Petrona (

Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sun, Jul. 6, 2008.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Reincarnationist by M J Rose

Past lives and present dangers
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
For The Inquirer
The Reincarnationist
By M. J. Rose
Mira. 458 pp. $24.95
Thirty years ago, a little-known author wrote a best seller that defined a new genre. Robin Cook's Coma was an exciting story about a young female medical student who uncovers a transplant scandal. It later came out that Cook had carefully analyzed the best-seller lists and identified about 20 key common features. He mixed these into one book, and the rest was history.
Of course, it wasn't as simple as all that: A doctor himself, Cook is an excellent writer, and was strongly motivated by his desire to highlight in a popular fashion the problem - then little-appreciated - of organ supply at a time when transplant technology was just becoming routine.
The Reincarnationist, the new book by M. J. Rose, reminds me strongly of that story, in that this racy read taps into several current top-selling themes.
Rose's novel opens as Josh Ryder, a photojournalist, is injured during a terrorist attack. While Josh is unconscious, he "is" Julius, a pagan Roman living in A.D. 391, guarding the vestal virgins from the emperor's soldiers, who are cruelly enforcing the Christian religion. After Josh comes round, these flashes of a past life occur frequently, if unchronologically. Hence, we learn that Julius was having an illicit affair with Sabina, head of the vestals, and was desperately trying to reach her at a tomb when attacked by the soldiers. Sabina was in charge of some secret memory stones, said to hold the secrets of all human experience if one had the mnemonic tools to understand the strange markings on them.
Yes, indeed, Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code is clearly in evidence, reinforced by a long sequence near the start of the book when present-day Josh visits a tomb in Rome that may be that of Sabina, witnesses a violent robbery, and hooks up with attractive archaeology professor Gabriella Chase. The two are soon on the run in Rome (sound familiar?), trying to evade the shadowy pursuers who steal Gabriella's research papers, as well as the police, who suspect Josh of having a role in the fatal events at the tomb.
Back in New York, the home of Josh and Gabriella, Josh visits the Talmage Institute, where reincarnation is studied as a science, as he is driven to seek Sabina in her present-day guise. As well as his regular flashbacks to Julius' life, Josh also experiences a previous existence as Percy Talmage, a rich young New York socialite in the late 19th century, poisoned by his uncle. Can it be a coincidence that Percy is of the same family whose descendants run the institute and, it soon transpires, have an interest in the very same memory stones and tools that Sabina guarded?
In addition to Josh and Gabriella's attempts to discover who is behind the robbery and why Gabriella is being stalked, we meet Rachel and her uncle, Alex, an art collector. Rachel, too, is troubled by her strange sense of having lived a previous life, precipitated by her meeting with, and magnetic attraction to, a sinister fellow called Harrison. She also seeks help at the Talmage Institute, but is turned away because only children are studied there. I couldn't help smiling at the reason: If the director agreed to investigate adult claims of reincarnation, she would lose her "scientific" credibility. Before Rachel leaves the institute, she and Josh meet. Josh immediately feels a connection with her. Could they have known each other in previous lives? In desperation, she seeks his help to calm her own fears, precipitated by her "memories" of Harrison's past evil deeds.
The Reincarnationist is a clever attempt to mix and match current popular book trends, wrapping the whole into a supernatural package. Its twisting plot demands that the present mystery can only be solved by an understanding of the past lives of the characters. In trying to achieve this goal, the book is far too episodic: The flashbacks to ancient Rome are vivid enough, but the present-day characters and their dramatic dilemmas seem flat. As for the 19th-century subplot, it is merely distracting - until the final pages, when its relevance is revealed.
The book is far too long: A taut, suspenseful 300-page novel could have been crafted from the existing 458 pages. It is also badly written: Sentences are clumsily constructed; strings of paragraphs often consist of three or four words each. The characters are cliches of romantic fiction, constantly overwhelmed by exaggerated emotions.
As a mystery, the book simply doesn't work, partly because the identity of the criminal mastermind is obvious from the start, but also because the many themes detract from the one-dimensional "twist" in the dénouement.
The markings on the stones, stressed as vital throughout the book, are studied in a race against time by a late-appearing Indiana Jones-type character, but there is no tension in the cracking of the code, and we are not told how it is done or what it reveals. As a thriller, the book works better - so long as you are happy to suspend disbelief concerning the supernatural as well as to accept many coincidences.
Like Robin Cook, M. J. Rose has a superb instinct for marketing. She is, rightly, a widely admired figure among authors for all the marketing and publishing advice she freely provides. The Reincarnationist is written by someone with a great grasp of what sells. For me, however, it was neither absorbing nor exciting.
Maxine Clarke is an editor at the science journal Nature. Her blog, "Petrona," is at

Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 November 2007.

Monday, June 04, 2007

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

A beach honeymoon amid shifting sands
On Chesil Beach
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese / Doubleday.
203 pp. $22
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
For The Inquirer (3 June 2007)
In On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan returns to the novella, a form in which he is a master. His first published works were short stories, often sinister vignettes whose unsettling power lay in their sense of oppressive atmosphere. Since those early days, of course, McEwan has written 10 full-length novels, most notably The Child in Time and Atonement, powerful, rich narratives featuring eventual healing and redemption after seemingly unbearable loss and despair.
McEwan's last novel, Saturday, was not typical of his work. It was a consciously uplifting response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001 - almost a technical exercise, limited to describing the events of a single day. One of its most memorable aspects was the description of the purchase, preparation and cooking of a fish stew, recipe available at the author's official Web site.
On Chesil Beach is a world apart from such literary devices, being on the surface a straightforward, even mundane narrative in which little happens. Yet the whole is infused with a bitter poignancy. It is completely absorbing. Even if not exactly designed to be read in one sitting, that is how it ought to be read, since doing so enables one to better join its brief interlude of intensity.
The framework is the youth and courtship, culminating in the wedding, of Edward and Florence in 1962 England. Rationing was a recent memory, youth was nascently emerging as a culture, World War II was the main influence on moral attitudes at all levels of society. I was born in England 10 years after Edward and Florence, and remember how the war dominated my childhood: in comics, books, movies, newspapers and conversations all around. Life was austere for most people: Eating out was a rare treat; books were mainly borrowed from the library; clothes were not fashion items but were bought to last; people did not buy expensive items until they could "save up" the money. A national mood of serious endeavor was firmly entrenched. McEwan has set his story when the country was at a point of balance: Harold Macmillan, the prime minister of the day, famously used the words "you've never had it so good" to describe this boring, drab England (how we smile at the phrase from our modern, jaded perspective). For the swinging '60s were about to burst on the scene: Change of government, hippiedom, personal gratification, French cuisine, the new wave, the Pill, and the materialism enabled by Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" were all just around the corner.
The time of this balance point in society is also the balance point in the relationship between Edward and Florence - on their honeymoon night, to be precise, in a Dorset hotel on Chesil Beach. Their small-scale story is told amid reflections on politics, sexual attitudes and social mores, perfectly capturing the peculiarly British repression and embarrassment of the time. One gets to know the characters as children, their parents, their social class, and where they lived all influencing their dreams and personalities.
The innocence of the postwar country, at the tipping point of change, is mirrored in the innocence of both main characters and their separate anticipation of their wedding-night deflowering. Florence is a musician, who can lose herself only when playing her violin. Edward's particular sensitivity lies in his response to the beauty of nature: wild flowers, birds and the natural world - feelings he represses under a veneer of "manliness."
Before their wedding, Edward and Florence have each arrived at a personal way to feel their emotions in the coded era in which they live. They each have their own personal ambitions, born perhaps out of frustration, but nevertheless, dreams. Edward wants to write about characters from history who briefly appeared, had a strong impact on one event, but then faded out. This strange interest is the key to his character. Florence has always been politely rejected by her mother, an Oxford academic of "progressive" tendencies, and has an ambiguous relationship with her businessman father. She's a timid, neat and well-behaved girl, but when she plays her violin or directs her string quartet, Edward observes her metamorphosis into a vibrant and confident being. Can each of these rather sad young people transduce their individual adaptive, private certainties into emotional intelligence: open honesty about their own feelings with each other? In what direction will the scales tip, balanced as they are that night on the unstable, shifting pebbles of the beach?
This short book is intense and powerful, particularly so at the end, when, in the fullness of time, one character can finally understand the cost and effect of the night on Chesil Beach, and see what could have happened if different words had been said or different actions taken. It is here, in the reflections of the older person looking back to the youth within, that we experience the insight of the story. It is no exaggeration to say that the book is a masterpiece - in miniature, maybe, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
Maxine Clarke is an editor at the science journal Nature. Read her blog Petrona.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Lying with Strangers by James Grippando

Soap opera shocks plus thriller chills
James Grippando takes a break from Jack Swyteck for a plot-stuffed pastiche that still packs a punch
Lying with Strangers
By James Grippando
HarperCollins. 391 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
James Grippando's new novel doesn't feature his series character, Miami-based lawyer Jack Swyteck, but instead introduces a woman doctor who is beautiful, driven, ambitious and stalked by the creepy "Rudy," who has her under surveillance.
After setting this scene, Lying with Strangers immediately switches track, describing our heroine's residency at a clinic, her cool-headed treatment of a dangerously injured baby, and subsequent efficient dispatching of the assailant. Far from being applauded for this feat, however, she and her hospital are threatened with a double lawsuit.
The book races on at breakneck pace, running through so many themes that my head whirled. Eventually, in a little detective work of my own, I realized that the key to the book is in the main character's name: Peyton. Yes, I was reading a pastiche soap opera, and the heroine's name is a homage to the mother of all soaps, Grace Metalious' 1957 classic Peyton Place.
Maybe my theory isn't right, but even so, Lying with Strangers is a whistle-stop tour round many current fashions in the thriller genre. We have Peyton's creepily obsessed stalker (Thomas Harris); her high-tech, high-pressure job at the hospital (Robin Cook); her troubled marriage, with her husband jealous of her success, always away and probably unfaithful (Mary Higgins Clark); the lawsuit (John Grisham). Added to the mix are Peyton's unhappy childhood with a kind but weak father and a cold, controlling mother, who, when Peyton was a young child, mysteriously had a baby who died in the hospital before coming home. Peyton is always reminded that she is a disappointment compared with what this second child could have become.
It is practically impossible to convey all the pertinent events of the novel in a brief review. A surprise birthday party for Peyton causes her to be terrified, culminating in her being run off the road. Later, her presumed assailant is found dead in circumstances that bring suspicion on Peyton. In a moment of weakness during one of her husband's mysterious absences, she goes out for a consoling drink with an ex-boyfriend, now a nurse at the hospital, and spends the night at his place. Circumstances conspire to make it look as if this was not as innocent as Peyton claims. Then the nurse vanishes, and a mysterious person phones Peyton and Kevin (her husband), demanding a ransom. They refuse to pay. The consequences mean that Peyton ends up in court, charged with a crime she did not commit, but painted by the prosecution as a deeply unsympathetic character. The reason (more accurately, one of the reasons) for Kevin's absences is revealed, which becomes yet another plot strand that could come from another book.
I had to keep reading Lying with Strangers once I'd started it, because no sooner is one problem thrown at poor persecuted Peyton, who resiliently and capably deals with it, than another looms up to take its place. The constant cliffhangers, combined with an easy writing style, make the book slip by in no time. But the provision of so many excitements means that no one storyline is very developed, and many ideas peter out.
Although I fell for some red herrings, I did guess the identity of the person behind the malevolence: Still, the ending has real punch. But as with so many crime novels, one feels that the villain could easily have found a far simpler way to achieve certain goals than to construct such a convoluted edifice of deception.
The soap-opera format left me feeling as if I'd eaten a meal of every flavor of ice cream rather than one with a better balance of nutrients. Nothing wrong with ice cream, of course - it is fun, escapist and, unless one eats too much of it too often, harmless. In this case, the heroine is feisty, intelligent, capable and attractive, and if she returns in another volume I might well read it. Nevertheless, I do hope that the flavor next time will be one or two scoops with a sprinkle of chocolate chips, rather than quite so comprehensively tutti frutti.

Maxine Clarke is an editor at the science journal Nature, and blogs at Petrona

From the Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday 27 May 2007.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Grave Tattoo

From The Philadelphia Inquirer
Posted on Wed, Feb. 07, 2007
Uniting the poet and the mutineer
The Grave Tattoo
By Val McDermid
St Martin's Minotaur.
390 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
A little-known fact about Fletcher Christian, leader of the mutiny on the Bounty, was that he was born on a farm in Cumbria, in the English Lake District, in 1764, six years before William Wordsworth, whom he probably knew.
Val McDermid's latest novel is an inventive historical mystery taking off from these bare facts. The trigger is the discovery of a body in a Lakeland fell, a body well over 100 years old and covered with tattoos in what turn out to be all the right places. Capt. William Bligh had described Christian thus: "5 ft. 9 in. High. Dark Swarthy Complexion. Hair - Blackish or very dark brown. Make - Strong. A Star tatowed [sic] on his left Breast, and tatowed on the backside."
The book's main character, Jane Gresham, is a Wordsworth scholar struggling to make ends meet in a part-time, underfunded position at London University. She works in a bar to pay the rent for a rundown council flat in a notorious area of the capital, and has befriended a 13-year-old neighbor, Tenille, who shares Jane's passion for Wordsworth. Tenille hides out in Jane's flat when she needs to escape from the domestic dangers of life with her guardian, a feckless aunt.
For some years, Jane has been working on a theory that Wordsworth and Christian were at school together, and that after the mutiny Christian left Pitcairn Island and returned to England to clear his name. Bligh, of course, had managed to survive being cast adrift in an open boat and had already returned home himself. So Christian could never have cleared his name, and Jane believes he was sheltered by Wordsworth. What is more, she thinks Wordsworth wrote a poem to vindicate Fletcher - a poem he meant to be published after both he and his subject had died, but that was hidden by Wordsworth's children and subsequent descendants.
Jane's theory has run into the ground for lack of evidence, but when she learns about the discovery of the body she dashes up to the Lake District to see if the cadaver could in fact be Christian. Tenille, however, finds herself on the run from the police and frantically makes for the only person she can trust: Jane. Added to the mix are Jake, Jane's ex-boyfriend who has deserted academia for the private sector and who is after the lost poem for its huge financial value; River, a female pathologist who wants to maximize the media value of her work on the body; a divorced cop; and Dan, a strangely eager, helpful academic colleague of Jane's. All these threads converge in a "pick-and-mix" literary confection based around the village of Grasmere and the local inhabitants.
Val McDermid has written about a score of excellent crime-fiction books. Originally published by a women's publisher (the Women's Press) and long admired by readers of detective stories, she has fairly recently broken into the big time with the TV serialization of her books on criminal psychologist Tony Hill. McDermid also wrote two other series, one about freelance journalist Lindsay Gordon, and another about a Manchester-based P.I., Kate Brannigan, as well as excellent if harrowing stand-alone novels.
The Grave Tattoo is well up to the standard of these previous offerings, but is much lighter in tone: It owes far more to the cozy tradition of Agatha Christie than the hard-boiled legacy of Raymond Chandler.
McDermid's last few books have been pretty graphic. The Grave Tattoo, however, contains nothing that would make your granny flinch. It is the most mainstream of McDermid's works that I've read.
The Grave Tattoo is strongest in its descriptions of the Lake District. The life of a fell farmer, the problems of living and working in a major tourist attraction, the weather and countryside are all convincingly and naturally portrayed. Where the book is less successful is in the characters, who are all somewhat wooden.
Jane is an attractive enough heroine, and her family seems realistic, but the other characters, Tenille and her gang-lord father in particular, are weak and one-dimensional. The details of the plot, too, don't stand up to careful scrutiny: How likely is it that nobody at Jane's work would know her cell phone number, or that the local police would never think to look up her parents in the phone book?
Still, it's a fast and easily digestible read. My advice is lock the doors, switch off the phone, put the kettle on, and settle in for two or three hours. It won't take any longer than that to read the book, and the process will be pleasant enough.
What of the Christian theory? You'll have to read the book to find out McDermid's own explanation. In reality, the considered view is that the link between Wordsworth and Christian, first suggested in a 1950s book, The Wake of the Bounty by C.S. Wilkinson - used as a source by McDermid - is fanciful. (Wilkinson even suggested that Christian was the model for Coleridge's Ancient Mariner.) Wordsworth and Christian were not at school together, although Wordsworth did attend the same school for six months - after Christian had left. The families did know each other, but there is no evidence for ties as close as those espoused by Wilkinson or McDermid's Jane Gresham. Wordsworth scholar Mary Moorman, in her review of Wilkinson's book, demolished most of the thesis.
Facts, of course, are not romantic, and McDermid's artistic license makes for an engaging and clever plot. The Grave Tattoo is none the worse for that.
Maxine Clarke is an editor at the science journal Nature. Read her blog Petrona at

Monday, October 16, 2006

What came before he shot her

New Elizabeth George an odd prequel
Her 14th Scotland Yard novel treats events leading to the 13th. An intriguing premise fails to develop.
What Came Before He Shot Her
By Elizabeth George
HarperCollins. 560 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Maxine Clarke
Every crime-fiction book succeeds or fails on its denouement - the moment of discovery when the villain is revealed and the mystery solved. And the most important rule for a crime-fiction reviewer is: Don't give away the ending.
Elizabeth George is the author of a baker's dozen novels featuring Scotland Yard detective Thomas Lindley and four associates. The books are interesting character studies as well as cleverly plotted, and deserve their commercial success. One reason I like them, presumably unintended by the American author, is that they portray a Neverland Britain - a country where Lord Peter Wimsey still exists and where forensic science is the province of independently wealthy amateurs.
In With No One as Witness, the unlucky 13th (and previous) book in the series, one of the core characters is shot. Reviewers did their duty and did not reveal the victim's name. In George's new book, What Came Before He Shot Her, the intriguing premise is to describe the events leading up to the shooting from the perspective of the perpetrators. So how review this book without "spoiling" the previous one? And how convey how the new book culminates in such an infuriating disappointment without giving away the crux of it, too?
In her previous books in the series, George has not provided a linear narrative between novels. She's varied the settings and the issues, relating each novel from the viewpoint of different characters among the core five. And the books have real emotional depth. Missing Joseph, for example, is as moving and insightful an account of infertility as I have read anywhere. Yet the next book in the series barely features this character at all, instead covering other players and a story about the intricacies of test-match cricket. For the Sake of Elena contains an intense subplot about Helen's sister's post-natal depression - but this is barely even mentioned in passing in future books. It is as if George worries a subject to death, gets bored with it, and moves on.
What Came Before is a letdown. I wanted to like it, but could not identify with any of the characters, who are either stupid, or only able to see as far as satisfying their next impulse, or opportunistic. The three abandoned children pivotal to the events are so hopelessly abused and stunted by their ghastly early life that they are but passive observers of their own misery from page one (literally). There is poignancy in their hopeless situation, but the long series of disconnected vignettes that constitutes the book creates an unconvincing whole.
The book is a narrow and claustrophobic portrait of the people who live at the "bottom," who have no knowledge of or care about the wider world they live in because it has been beaten or squeezed out of them: No interest in education, no opportunity to learn or read, unrealistic expectations, and desperate poverty. Yet as an attempt at psychological insight about the inevitability of the fate of these damaged children, abandoned by selfish parents and unreachable by anyone in the caring professions, the book fails.
In previous books, one could smile at the unintentionally anachronistic moments in the lives of Thomas, Helen and Simon (Deborah, and particularly Barbara, are far more realistic). But the new book portrays a relentlessly miserable collection of humanity. The bloopers are thus harder to indulge. Major plot developments flop because, for example, nobody has heard of free bus passes or welfare benefits. This is simply not believable. And the book is riddled with such implausibilities.
George certainly has an ear for dialogue and the inner voice of her characters, but the characters in this book do not exist in a cohesive environment, but rather in a series of disconnected scenes that ignore whole chunks of their lives. Some of these scenes work better than others: Vanessa shoplifting in the Queensway shopping mall is spot-on. But others don't: 12-year-old Joel as a mature, instant poet of full-blown genius is ridiculous.
There is, at long last, a denouement of sorts, involving a cold manipulator acting out of pique over a personal rejection. But we do not discover any answers to questions stimulated by the previous book. Why was that particular victim targeted for the titular shooting? What underlies the ruthless coldness of the villain? We aren't told the answer to these and many other questions. And without familiar characters for sustenance, readers are, like the characters in the book, left out in the cold.

Maxine Clarke is a science editor for the journal Nature. Her Web log Petrona is at

Philadelphia Inquirer Sun 15 October 2006