Pediatric psychiatry and mass murder intersect in Lisa Gardner mystery ‘Live to Tell’

April 26, 2013

Boston Police Sgt. D.D. Watson is on a date one hot August night when she’s called to a three-story house in the working-class neighborhood of Dorchester. The home’s five residents have been brutally attacked. Four are dead, including the children; the father dies at the hospital.

The next day, Watson is summoned to a vermin-infested house in Jamaica Plains on the other side of town. Again, everyone here — a man, a woman and four children ranging in age from adolescence to infancy — has been slaughtered.

These two cases in Lisa Gardner’s 2010 novel, Live to Tell, initially seem to have little in common. But it soon emerges that children from both families spent time at the same acute-care psychiatric ward.

The ward employs Danielle, a psychiatric nurse. She’s spent most of her life thinking of herself as a victim after her father killed his wife, his two other children and himself while sparing her. Co-worker Greg, a tall, athletic man easily capable of inflicting the knife wounds found in the corpses, has a similarly tragic past; he has also surreptitiously, and suspiciously, been working with families of the clinic’s patients. And the clinic is frequently visited by Andrew, a charismatic new age healer who turns out to have a secret or two of his own. 

Is Greg the killer? Is Andrew? Is Danielle about to become a victim yet again, or has she actually been re-enacting her childhood trauma by committing the horrific murders? And what will become of Victoria, the besieged mother of seriously ill 8-year-old Evan — a boy whose increasingly uncontrollable behavior will inevitably lead his family to a pediatric psych ward that is increasingly plagued by inexplicable problems.

In this, the fourth D.D. Watson book (per Goodreads.com), Gardner keeps the plot moving along while taking some time to characterize her detective heroine. But while Watson and the subplot involving her flirtation with a fellow detective make for pleasant reading, Live to Tell mainly shines in the chapters told from the perspectives of Danielle and Victoria. The passages about these women grappling with damaged children in the moment and with their haunted pasts add pathos, depth and tension to the narrative.

While I enjoyed this book, I won’t be going out of my way to seek out more Lisa Gardner volumes. By the same token, if I come across another one, despite not being an avid mystery reader, I’d dive in willingly.

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