Against all expectations, London ghostwriter Stephanie Harker becomes friends with her latest subject, bad girl reality show star Scarlett Higgins, only to become caught up in a scheme that leads to the abduction of Scarlett's little boy.
The book opens at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, where Stephanie, who has become five-year-old Jimmy's guardian, flips out when she sees a male stranger lead him away as she's being examined in a security box. After being Tasered by agents and told she's making up the abduction, she pours out an exhaustive account of the events leading up to it to a sympathetic female FBI agent. Though "Scarlett Harlot" gained fame as an epithet-spouting bimbo on a survivor-type show, Goldfish Bowl, she actually is a woman of savvy intelligence who invented that image to escape her bad circumstances. Like Stephanie, whose moody musician boyfriend attempts to control her, Scarlett has a disagreeable mate: a gadabout club DJ who is into drugs and guns. The women become close, shutting the men out of their lives after Jimmy is born, and closer still after Scarlett is diagnosed with cancer. To escape the tabloids, Scarlett imports a half sister who looks a lot like her to be her public surrogate. The story also involves a British detective with whom Stephanie becomes involved, a doctor who devotes himself to the terminal Scarlett, and a Romanian nanny. For all its twists, the narrative never gains traction. The plotting is so mechanical, the writing so pedestrian ("She watched, the tension in her body growing with every passing minute"), you half suspect this book was concocted not by McDermid, author of such masterpieces as A Place of Execution (2000), but a different kind of ghostwriter.
If anything vanishes in this book, it's the first-rate writing fans of McDermid (best known in the States for her Wire in the Blood series) have come to expect.