EVERY SECRET THING is that rare creation, a book with a title that's a perfect fit --- not only for its subject matter, but also for the extraordinary skill with which the author Laura Lippman unfolds her tale. Yes, this is a book about a crime but it's also about how, in order to live with ourselves, we inevitably lie to ourselves and to others. Furthermore, it's about how the lies are big or small, conscious or unconscious, and how hard it is to unravel the lies and bring the truth to light.
Much will undoubtedly be made of the fact that this is the first stand-alone novel by a mystery writer whose series about the Baltimore-based private detective Tess Monaghan has won every award the mystery community has to offer. Some reviewers may apply to EVERY SECRET THING a phrase I myself dislike: "transcends the genre." My personal dislike aside, it is nevertheless true that this stand-alone really does stand alone, head and shoulders above the author's other work, and it transcends not only a genre but most other fiction published this year.
The basic concept for the plot is tough, so you know right away no punches will be pulled: Two little girls, eleven years old, take a baby that was left briefly unattended in a carriage outside a house in a middle-class Baltimore neighborhood. The worst happens. The baby dies and the two girls are tried, convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of their childhoods in prison. They end up in separate juvenile detention facilities, one slightly harsher than the other. Seven years later, both girls regain their freedom. Soon after their release from prison, a toddler disappears from the neighborhood shopping center, and then another; the second toddler to disappear is the sister of the original baby victim, which to the distraught mother seems proof that one or both of the two now-eighteen-year-old girls is to blame. That mother wants revenge, or maybe it's justice --- and because her father is a black judge highly respected throughout Baltimore, she will have it.
That is the story on its surface. But EVERY SECRET THING is not about the surface --- it's about the many murky layers beneath. These layers keep rising to the top to be skimmed off one by one. Slowly telling the tale in turn from their different points of view, the characters give up their secrets: the girls, Ronnie and Alice; Helen, Alice's mother; Cynthia, the mother of the dead baby; Sharon, Alice's lawyer; and Nancy, the homicide detective whose life and career have been altered by the case. All their lives in fact have been changed forever by that one act Ronnie and Alice committed on a summer afternoon after behaving badly at a swimming pool party: "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." This is a haunting image, heavy with irony.
The genius of Laura Lippman's storytelling is not only in sharp details such as that, but even more so in the way she coaxes us to move, along with her characters, deeper and deeper into honesty about the dark places in ourselves. I was three-quarters of the way through the book when I realized with a bit of a shock that all the characters are women. You may remember the old nursery adage: "Sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little girls are made of." Here, Lippman justly and deftly gives the new woman's "I don't think so" to that whole idea.
After reading the book's stunning conclusion, I sat thinking about secrets. The big thing about secrets is that everybody wants to know what they are. Everybody wants to know the truth. Don't we?
Reviewed by Ava Dianne Day on September 28, 2004