Every Secret Thing
Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2005
410 Pgs; $7.99
Publication Date: September 1, 2003
Date Reviewed: March 26, 2005
Laura Lippman writes the popular, long-running female PI Tess Monaghan series, now up to eight books, all set in and around Baltimore, Maryland. 'Every Secret Thing' is a stand-alone, a series amnesty book for those of us who can't catch up with a multi-book series. It's a dark, disturbing suspense tale about crime and the aftermath of crime — reminiscent of a 'Mystic River' set in Baltimore not Boston, and dominated by women not men.
'Every Secret Thing' is the story of two eleven-year old girls, one fat and one crazy. Ronnie Fuller and Alice Manning are accused and convicted of killing an infant, the grand daughter of a prominent black judge, whom they found alone in her stroller while walking home from a birthday party. They're sentenced to seven years in juvenile jail, an unsatisfying punishment for the mother of the dead child but a victory for the public defender handling their case. Shortly after their release, other toddlers turn up missing, some for very brief periods, but one, in particular, for much longer. Which girl was the killer and which was the bystander, or did either do anything at all; is one, both, or someone else, doing it all again? This forms the crux of the mystery narrative and on its own is an unusual and fertile base for a suspense novel. But the thrust of the book is far more expansive as it delves into the psyches of both of the child criminals, their parents, their legal eagles, the cops and the surviving families of the victims. 'Every Secret Thing' cuts a much broader swath than the average crime novel, and does so with an expansive cast of characters rendered in seductive, observant detail.
Lippman tells this story from multiple points of view, no mean challenge when there are so many POVs to render. She writes as the children - Ronnie Fuller, dark-haired, slender, and visibly disturbed, a child who grows to become an isolated, introspective loner, smart, suspicious, expecting little and getting less. Alice Manning, her childhood cohort, is the opposite, blond, overweight and outwardly accommodating, the classic "nice girl". Alice grows fairer, fatter and more faceless, her accommodating exterior covering a frighteningly quiet dissimilitude. Lippman also writes from the perspective of the mothers - Alice's mother, Ronnie's mother, and Cynthia Barnes, the angry, yet-to-heal mother of the murdered infant. And she writes from the viewpoint of the career women entangled in these events, Public Defender Stephanie, young homicide detective Nancy Porter and the local reporter Mira Jenkins. It's panoply of POVs, a cascade of characters, each minutely detailed and finely observed, all participating in and shaped by this crime and its aftermath.
'Every Secret Thing' tackles the deeply disturbing theme of infanticide with unusual sensitivity. Lippman surrounds the dark crime with characters of substance and details the results as they spiral ever more tightly through the mental minefields of cause and effect, action and reaction. This is a novel of psychological suspense, not violence, and the narrative unfolds episodically, non-linearly and languidly. Each vignette answers old questions while generating new ones, embellishes one character while revealing unknown truths about another.
Lippman is an impressive prose stylist. Her language is rich, her observations sharp and her ability to define and describe character and place is exceptional. She can be cynical and angry, moody and melancholy, conniving or naive; she can enliven the commonplace with piercing insight and nail a character, a place, or a moment with but a few perfectly chosen words.
'Every Secret Thing' a novel about women, of women's stories and women's lives minutely observed. Motherhood, childhood, guilt, innocence, and the ultimate quest for acceptance and redemption are at the forefront. It's a story of a bunch of women, young and old, black and white, with children or without, who worry that they somehow don't measure up, who don't quite fit in, and who take any number of different paths through life searching for yet-to-be-found connection and peace. If there is a flaw in the novel, it's that these absorbing characters overwhelm the narrative thread, overshadowing the who-did-what-and-why component that's required to build tension and sustain suspense. By the time the circumstances are unraveled and the truth revealed, the urgency has been lost and the satisfaction normally found with a full disclosure fails to take hold. While overly long and lacking in tension, 'Every Secret Thing' nonetheless succeeds as a memorably substantive novel of character, one that is exquisitely and evocatively written.