LIAR: An Irene Kelly Mystery
By Jan Burke

Simon & Schuster, 320 pp. ($23.00)

Reviewed by Tom Kreitzberg (6/98)

There may be three kinds of lies, as the old saying has it, but Jan Burke's latest novel shows that there are more than three kinds of liars. LIAR, the sixth entry in the consistently strong Irene Kelly series, explores the lasting effects of the lies people tell the world, their loved ones, and themselves.

The most prominent liar of this novel is the charming and personable Arthur Spanning. Married to Irene's aunt Briana, he caused a strain on family relations with what Irene clearly remembers as a pass he made at her mother. Later unmasked as a bigamist and the prime suspect in the stabbing death of his first (and legal) wife, Gwendolyn Spanning, he is thought to have earned the low opinion of his in-laws.

As the novel opens, Gwendolyn has been dead a dozen years and Irene hasn't seen Arthur, Briana, or their son Travis in nearly twice as long. Irene's great aunt Mary Kelly invites her over for a talk, to tell her that Briana was killed a few weeks earlier in a hit-and-run accident. Aunt Mary asks Irene to track down her cousin Travis, as yet unaware of his mother's death. For Irene, who as a twelve-year- old had held the infant Travis in the hospital waiting room while her mother lay upstairs dying of cancer, he represented her "little talisman against grief;" she agrees to find him.

Irene's involvement, though, is not purely a gesture to repair a rift in the family. Briana's death is being investigated as a homicide by the Los Angeles Police Department, and as Briana's sole heir -- thanks to a handwritten will intended to teach Travis a lesson in filial obedience -- Irene is of great interest to the cop assigned to the case. The sooner she can discover who wanted to kill this poor, elderly woman, the sooner she can get the LAPD off her back.

One of Burke's strengths as a writer is her ability to create characters both sympathetic and flawed; she exercises this in LIAR most noticably in the character of Travis Maguire. In a poweful prologue set on the night of Gwendolyn's murder, we meet him as a sensitive yet impulsive child; "the oldest eleven-year-old in the world," as his mother calls him. While he and Irene work to repair their twenty-year long breach, she discovers him to be funny, caring, wise, and as pig-headed as his older cousin.

Irene Kelly herself has continued to develop over the course of the novels. The stubbornness that once bordered on the reflexive -- she seemed to do everything anyone told her not to do, often with life- threatening results -- has been tempered by her experiences. She still bears scars, both physical and psychological, from earlier adventures, and has learned to let others share her risks.

As is typical in this series, the appeal of LIAR lies more in the well-paced unfolding of the plot and the interactions between the characters than in the intricacies of the puzzle that drive Irene's investigations. There is humor both a little broad -- provided by Irene's melodramatic sister Barbara and a visit to a mad inventor's workshop -- and a little dry -- mention is made of a corporate executive who broke a bottle of aged single malt Scotch when he dropped dead of a heart attack in his club's bar, "ensuring that his passing was accompanied by genuine grief."

In Irene Kelly, Jan Burke has found a voice that has served her well through a half dozen fine novels, and one that shows no signs of becoming tired or strained. As important to Burke's success is the fact that she has surrounded Irene with a number of interesting and memorable friends and family members, characters who add to the depth and richness of the series. LIAR is strong writing from start to finish, and there is every reason to expect many more such novels from Burke.

The Irene Kelly series, in order of publication, is GOODNIGHT, IRENE; SWEET DREAMS, IRENE; DEAR IRENE; REMEMBER ME, IRENE; HOCUS, and LIAR.


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