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American/Cozy Mysteries

To the Power of Three, Laura Lippman, Avon, $7.99.

To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman

One of the best things about mysteries has always been the fact that they hold a very precise mirror up to contemporary society, and they always have. Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh were all social satirists and observers of the highest order - The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a wonderful novel for many reasons, but not the least of them is the opening breakfast scene with the narrator and his sister. I also think this is one of the things that's overlooked until the authors are long gone, and that's a shame, because to miss what a writer like Laura Lippman has to say about contemporary American life would be almost criminal. Like the best satirist (and this book is far from a satire), Lippman may poke gentle fun at some of her characters - but in the end, she has an affection for every single one of them, and perhaps that's why she can write about them so completely. The inner workings of the minds of the three girls in this novel are totally fascinating - at over 400 pages, this checks in as a long book, but I could have read 800 pages - that's how much I enjoyed reading about Lippman's teens, Kat, Perri and Josie.

The book centers on one of the most contemporary of all social issues, a high school shooting. Of course there's more to the simple story as it first emerges; that's the journey of the book, and Lippman takes us back to third grade when the three girls have first met and we follow them as they grow into young women. Perri, the actress, is an acerbic wit who is so full of ideas she's the defacto leader of their group; Kat is the "nice" one - beautiful and well rounded, she's good at everything, and she's still so pleasant that she seemingly has no enemies; and Josie, the last to join the trio (she moves to the neighborhood in third grade) is the mixed race athlete who worships Perri and Kat so totally she never wants to make waves. I find it hard to believe that Lippman doesn't live with teenagers (as I do); I was struck by the incredibly accurate dissection and description of the "teen" relationships. Everyone knows girls are far crueler that boys - using their words rather than their bodies, they wound where it really hurts, and as Perri, Kat and Josie lurch into high school, hormones, ambitions and innate differences highlight the tensions between them, which ultimately end tragically. We as readers don't know the total "why" until the very end of the book, but it's really beside the point. The arc of this book is all about getting to know these girls.

As precisely as the girls are described, so is the social atmosphere they live in. If I didn't recognize myself in the various parents that were described here, I certainly recognized bits of myself, and I think anyone would. And while Lippman claims the "Glendale" of the novel is completely fictional, I have a feeling it describes many suburbs across America. As she takes us into the minds of the various people who are affected by the tragic events that begin the novel, we begin to get a 360 degree view of what happened. This is not a view granted to the characters in the novel, of course, because just like real life, there are lots of things we never know about other people; the "whole" story is never complete. I think that's what's so satisfying about this book - getting this complete birds' eye view, never granted in reality, is the gift of the talented novelist. Like Every Secret Thing, Lippman's previous stand alone, this is a novel to be savored and thought about long after it's been read. Minette Walters and Ruth Rendell don't have a corner on the market as far as psychological insight is concerned; Lippman is a homegrown example of an astute, and artistic, observer. I can only hope that next time, the book actually is 800 pages - this one didn't last nearly long enough.

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