Every Secret Thing is a novel of suspense by author Laura Lippman, and has just been released in paperback this month. The original hardback version was released in September of 2003. And frankly, I wish I’d heard of Laura Lippman sooner, or I wouldn’t have wasted my time on two Patricia Cornwell books over the last year or so.
I began reading Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels years ago, and at first was truly enthralled. The early Scarpetta novels are finely crafted suspense and mystery. Then something, I’m not entirely sure what, happened. Perhaps the Anne Rice phenomenon, where an author’s product becomes so wildly popular they are either no longer edited or perhaps only proofread, mildly vetted, and then it’s off to the presses.
For example, this year I tried valiantly to get through Ms. Scarpetta’s ‘non-fiction’ Jack the Ripper opus, Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper– Case Closed where she makes a rather tortured case for lesser known but brilliant English painter, Walter Sickert, being The Ripper. Her argument is essentially that he had some major wee-wee issues that did not allow him normal sexual congress and basically this twisted him up so badly he went “ripping whores.” I’m a true-crime freak in addition to fiction and suspense, and I couldn’t stand it after a while. Her assertions and connections became more and more tangential as the book went on and eventually I lost interest.
Then quite recently I read the paperback release of her Scarpetta novel, Blow Fly. I had great expectations for the novel. I was disappointed. The resolution was not a resolution, and even if her intention was to leave it open-ended and close the story loops with the next Scarpetta novel, I was too frustrated by the glibly written and trite ending to care.
All this digression about Ms. Cornwell, whom I’m pre-disposed to like for many reasons outside her writing, like her struggle with bipolar disorder and her publicizing of the work of Dr. William Bass, creator of the University of Tennessee’s “Body Farm,” which I visited while a student there – (Dr. Bass is a most avuncular and charming man, and a brilliant lecturer, once you get past the idea that he’s got dead people goo on his shoes) – all this is done to underscore why I’d rather be reading Laura Lippman’s work from now on. In this one novel, the story of two little girls who take a wrong turn after being thrown out of a birthday party and end up embroiled in shocking and deeply sad events, Laura Lippman shows how to do this sort of thing right. I finished reading – I read it in one sitting, a relatively rare event for me – and wondered why on earth I hadn’t heard more about this writer and this novel. Either my head’s been further up my rear than I thought or she needs much more vigorous publicity.
Every Secret Thing purports to be suspense, and it is, but there is an intensity and pathos woven into the fabric of the story that I feel places this novel into another league of literature all together. It should be on the shelves with what is now styled as “general literature”, wildly popular books with great literary merit like the works of Michael Ondaatje, Anita Shreve, or Tracy Chevalier. Laura Lippman brings you inside her characters heads in ways that are unique in this genre. She manages the rather brilliant trompe l’oeil of leading you through the most ruined of internal landscapes and still not truly letting you know until the time is right who it is you are dealing with.
The protagonists of the story are Alice and Ronnie. At 11 they are ejected from a summer birthday party by the yuppie scum Mom of the little acquaintance who is having the birthday. On the way home they are walking by a row of well-to-do folks homes when they spot an apparently abandoned baby in a carriage. The girls figure the baby is abandoned, and decide to “take care” of it.
The novel proper begins as Alice and Ronnie are released from “kid prison” 7 years after that baby’s terrible death. At this point we think we know what happened – Ronnie, the more volatile, outspoken of the two ended up killing the child, and passive Alice took the fall along with her, like one who, in trying to save a drowning swimmer, is dragged under in the struggle.
To compound the situation, this has all occurred in racially tense Baltimore, Maryland, and the girls are white, the baby in question the granddaughter of a locally prominent African-American judge.
Out of these elements Laura Lippman weaves a story that unfolds through depictions of the characters interior lives as much as anything. From the young female cop who is now a Detective investigating a similar disappearance that has coincided with the girls release from captivity, who happened to be the person who found the dead infant 7 years before while still a cadet, to Alice and Ronnie, and Alice’s disturbingly self-absorbed mother, Helen.
It would be spoiling the story completely to go much further, so I have to speak more generally when I say that in one of the leading characters Laura Lippman gives us one of the most fascinating depictions of the bleak internal life of a psychopath that I’ve yet read. She does not highlight the showy madness or the inhuman brilliance one expects after huge characterizations like Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, she manages to believably portray the utter banality and infantile selfishness of the creature. It’s a slow dawning, the reader’s realization of who is truly crazy in this novel…and even though you know by the time the character’s true colors are openly displayed, it’s still a fundamental shock.
If Laura Lippman’s pitch-perfect writing of the mindset of this truly frightening kind of everyday psycho reminds me of any other writer, it is – believe it or not – Camus, and his narrator in The Stranger. Through that slim and dark novel there is a remarkable thread of everyday madness that grows on you like shadows lengthen at days’ end. In Every Secret Thing it’s as if we are looking inside the head of one of that casually homicidal narrator’s great-grandchildren.
If all this is not enough, the story is so tightly woven that it made me realize just how few suspense novelists seem to care if they tie up loose ends. Laura Lippman does tie them up, in a perfectly logical and satisfying way. She makes her cops utterly human and likably flawed, and as a caucasian woman depicting the inner lives of characters who are not always white anglo-saxon protestants – or women, for that matter – she manages to avoid any sense of condescension or the feeling that she’s trying to play to potential non-WASP readers, as suspense novelist James Patterson sometimes does in his Alex Cross novels.
It is my hope after reading this book that Laura Lippman’s star continues to rise. I say that with her newest hardback Tess Monaghan novel (apparently Laura Lippman’s contribution to the recurring sleuth ouevre), By a Spider’s Thread sitting on the foot of the bed behind me, inviting me to another, hopefully pleasant, sleepless night. If Every Secret Thing is any indication, I’m in for a real treat.