By a Spider's Thread, William Morrow, and Every Secret Thing, William Morrow, each $24.95, Laura Lippman.
If the modern golden age writers - Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and others - wrote the mystery as a puzzle to be solved, I think that we're in a new, postmodern golden age, with a different focus. The focus of many strong contemporary mysteries is not merely on the puzzle - though that's certainly a part of it - but on the aftermath of crime. Strong recent examples of this trend would include For the Sake of Elena by Elizabeth George; Aftermath by Peter Robinson; most of Minette Walters; and perhaps most famously Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. Add to this list both of Laura Lippman's most recent novels, By a Spider's Thread and her stand alone, Every Secret Thing. Every Secret Thing is a fine novel that happens to be a crime novel; it's one of the most distinctive and compelling books I've read all year. I've come late to the party, of course - I'm reading this as Lippman is due to arrive at the store, and long after the mystery awards season - had I read Every Secret Thing earlier, it would have been a topic of my Edgar rant on books that are unjustly ignored. But I digress. Every Secret Thing begins seven years in the past when two 11 year old girls spy a baby unattended on a front porch and decide to take care of her with disastrous and tragic results. When the story fast forwards to the present, we meet not only the baby's mother, but the two girls as they emerge from juvenile prison to rejoin their families. This book is not only a complex portrait of a crime in the past, but of a crime in the present - also involving a missing baby - and the police work that takes us as readers through the story of the crimes both past and present. The ever widening circle of influence of the first crime - including the lawyer of one of the girls - is a complex and tragic one. Everyone in the book responds to the tragedy differently, and therein lies the story of their characters.
If the characters weren't vivid and interesting this would of course be a slow and boring book. But while they are not always likeable - they're too fine tuned for that - they are amazingly lifelike. And Lippman, bringing her finely tuned novelist's skills, honed over many Tess Monaghan mysteries, never hits a wrong or a false note, and every character is indelible, sometimes unfortunately so. There are one or two of them I wish I didn't have swishing around in my brain but there they are, real as can be. This is an unforgettable book about crime, told in complicated yet seemingly simple and effortless layers. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
Lippman's new Tess Monaghan novel, By a Spider's Thread, profits, I think, from the fresh point of view she brought to Every Secret Thing. Unlike most of the previous novels, this one is told with a split point of view - alternating between a man who has come home to find his wife and children missing, and the missing wife and children. The missing wife and children portion is told mainly through the eyes of the man's oldest son, Isaac, and if the characters in Every Secret Thing weren't so likeable, Isaac more than makes up for it. A serious and intelligent nine year old, he's voiced with such vividness that he stays with you long after you've finished the book.
The alternating chapters involve Tess and the missing Isaac's father as they together try to find his family. Lippman is so smooth she's able to toss in some very funny bits about Aunt Kitty's wedding (and Tess's part in it) as well as describe a new online support group of female PI's called the Snoop Sisters that Tess uses to good advantage in tracking down Isaac and his siblings. But there's a freshness here which really made the book compelling and interesting - Lippman has twisted the PI formula to good effect. This book may not be strictly about the aftermath of crime, but it certainly details what leads up to the various crimes in this book, and because Lippman has so carefully laid her groundwork that when revelations come late in the novel they aren't so much of a total surprise as an "aha" moment. The ending is both satisfying and heartbreaking, and Tess, eternally dithering over her relationship with Crow (who, let's face it, has very few faults), seems to come to some sort of decision about him. It remains to be seen what that decision is, but I'm certainly looking forward to finding out.
Editor's Postscript: Every Secret Thing has been nominated for an Anthony award for best novel.
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