Every Secret Thing
by Laura Lippman
Published by William Morrow
388 pages, 2003
Lippman Pumps It Up
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
I just finished Laura Lippman's new standalone thriller, Every Secret Thing, and "gulp" is the operative word. I just devoured it, read it in two or three big gulps. This novel, her eighth, and her first not to feature Baltimore reporter-turned-private eye Tess Monaghan (In Big Trouble, The Last Place), is, simply put, one of the most powerful, emotionally wrenching books I've ever read.
I swear, it completely blindsided me, and I am still not sure I've recovered. Yet I should have seen it coming. After all, every book in the Monaghan series has found Lippman, an ex-journalist herself, stretching out a bit, reaching a little higher, venturing a little deeper into that place where the wild things go.
But a standalone about two little girls who are charged with murder? Nothing could have prepared me for that. I mean, I remember when Laura -- and Tess -- seemed like such nice girls ...
This is primo stuff, written with raw passion and a savage intelligence, a brave, blistering questioning of life and justice and vengeance and oh, the so very many ways we all fail each other -- especially our children. Every Secret Thing is, by far, the best work Lippman has done to date. It's the kind of book that, as Dashiell Hammett (another pretty good Baltimore writer) once put it, rips off the lid and lets you look at the works. Some of Lippman's more genteel fans will head for the smelling salts. But this author stands to gain (and deserves) an even larger audience. You will read Every Secret Thing and hate it, or you will read it and be blown away. But you will not soon forget this book.
They were barefoot when they were sent home, their dripping feet leaving prints that evaporated almost instantly, as if they had never been there at all.
To tell you the truth, Lippman had me at that first sentence. This image, of slowly evaporating footprints, will stay with me for a long, long time. It's set on a steaming hot July day in Baltimore, seven years before most of the action in this book takes place. Eleven-year-olds Alice Manning and Ronnie Fuller are on their way home together, on foot, banished from a classmate's birthday party. Ronnie, the "bad" girl, has committed an unforgivable social faux pas -- something about an inappropriate gift -- that has lead to their expulsion. In a few pages, Lippman sketches out the entire political and social pecking order in the secret and often cruel world of 10- and 11-year-old girls -- the vicious dos and don'ts of Barbies and scrunchies, jellies and puffy bumps -- that is nothing short of breathtaking. Lippman's eye for the telling detail has never been so sharp, or so fierce.
And that's just the prologue, which promptly slams shut just as these two girls come across nine-month-old Olivia Barnes in an unattended baby carriage by the front door of her house.
"We have to take care of this baby." Ronnie says.
The next time we see this pair, it's seven years later, and Ronnie and Alice are being released by the state of Maryland, after serving prison time for their part in the murder of young Olivia.
Yet the actual circumstances of that long-ago tragedy, the secret that lies at the heart of this dark masterpiece of fiction, aren't quite revealed -- at least not at first. Oh, they're constantly referred to, teasingly, obliquely, as the plot snaps like a bullwhip from past to present and from viewpoint to viewpoint, and the details are oh-so-slowly filled in. Incredibly, Lippman pours it on, never letting up on the suspense. We catch glimpses, clues, hints, memories, but are never allowed to know the whole story of that summer until this novel's end.
Instead, we must rely on the often contradictory testimony of a wide and disparate cast of characters. The seemingly innocuous events in Every Secret Thing are just that -- the simple, mundane activities of common people. There are no gun battles or car chases or slo-mo martial arts to drive this thriller. In their place, we're offered the drama of real life. And make no mistake, these are real people, people just trying to get through days, trying to live their lives and deal with whatever kind of hand they have to play. They're not even necessarily evil, just flawed, but certainly not any more flawed than anyone else. They live, they breathe, they screw up, they hurt -- but oh lord, do they hurt. If there's one thing that all the players here share, it's pain. And secrets. Under Lippman's unflinching gaze, their pain and their secrets come alive.
Lippman lines up her characters and strips them bare: the ambitious but insecure Baltimore homicide detective, Nancy Porter, who thinks she still has to prove that her rapid rise in the department was justified; Cynthia Barnes, the grieving mother who continues to hunger for vengeance; Sharon Kepelmen, Alice Manning's idealistic public defender, whose principles and guilt won't allow her to let go of the case; and Helen Manning, the eccentric single parent and schoolteacher. Each of these people, in their own way, is obsessed with the events of that tragic summer seven years ago.
Then, of course, there are those two girls at the heart of this tale. Ronnie, we're told, was a barely articulate child, the "crazy" one, a confused but cunning youngster, just another lost girl from a dysfunctional working-class family, the rough-edged slip kid nobody expected would amount to much. Alice, on the other hand, was the "good" one, the "fat" one -- as confused as Ronnie, but bright and articulate, a preternaturally smart little girl, desperate to belong, to be "normal," reared by her proud, rebellious mother.
The tensions, the conflicts, the anger, the guilt, the blame, the secret hurts of these women (and it's suddenly occurred to me: where are the men? Except for detective Porter's male colleagues in Homicide, there are hardly any men in this book) -- all kept simmering for seven years -- suddenly come to a frantic boil as Ronnie and Alice are released back into their old neighborhood.
And then babies start disappearing again ...
The end of this yarn, when it comes, is viscous. Unsettling. Disturbing. There is no grand scheme, no conspiracy of evil, no sweeping sense of closure -- things just happen, and good intentions are shot to hell. The seeming randomness of events and lives on a collision course give this book a sense of tragic doom.
I love books like this one. Like Richard Price's recent Samaritan, Every Secret Thing is a rich, emotionally charged jigsaw puzzle that finds its power in the seemingly trivial minutiae of real people's lives, the shifting perspectives of a large and diverse cast, all swirling around a never-quite-identified tragedy, the story building tension, filling in facts slowly, stretching back and forth in time like a giant rubber band, until all of the pieces finally, brutally snap into place and the truth -- or at least some version of it -- is finally revealed. The jolt when that happens can be breathtaking, and that's certainly true here.
Every Secret Thing's revelations are jarring and unsettling, and the points made about society, and the way we treat our children, are scathing. And damning. If there be monsters here, they be us.
Lippman's publisher, William Morrow, is pushing hard on this new book -- as well it should. In a book season that sees the shelves populated by scores of mealy mouthed, self-serving politicians, pundits and lying liars of every stripe trotting out reheated excuses and blame for everything from war to global warming, Every Secret Thing is the real thing -- a fierce, vital, unflinching look at ourselves that cuts through the crap and gets right in our faces. This is Lippman's payoff -- or possibly her revenge -- after years in the trenches. She's finally kicked out the jams, lit out for the territories and pumped it up until you can feel it. She has written that most elusive of things: an honest-to-goodness breakout novel that actually deserves to break out.
If this book doesn't kick down the doors, nothing will. | September 2003
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor, a Mystery Scene columnist and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth, he now lives in the Los Angeles area, but a big chunk of his heart remains in the Great White North.