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.