The Secret Life of Best Friends

The call comes in early to the Baltimore County police – there's been a shooting at a suburban high school. But when the police arrive, all their training doesn't prepare them for what they discover: three former best friends locked in a girls' bathroom. One's dead, another is critically injured from what appears to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound while the only survivor, injured by a bullet to the foot, is doing her best to avoid telling the truth.

The three girls – Kat, Perri and Josie, respectively – had been best friends since the age of 8, managing to avoid the kinds of petty squabbles that undermine many girls' friendships. Josie was the athlete, Perri the thespian and Kat the undisputed scholar of the bunch. The three always managed to encourage one another and never appeared jealous of their individual successes.

But despite their pledge to stay close no matter what, things started unraveling in senior year. Perri broke away for reasons that no one at Glendale High School could quite figure out. Did jealousy over a boy do the trio in? Could it have been the choice of the school play, and who got which part that set the girls off? Or was Perri simply unable to deal with the fact that Kat, always the shy and quiet one, had suddenly blossomed into a beautiful, poised young woman who seemed to get exactly what she wanted without even trying?

Homicide sergeant Harold Lenhardt, one of the first on the scene, had always considered motive beside the point when there were eyewitnesses to a crime, as well as lots of physical evidence. But matters were not so simple here. Perri was in a coma and not expected to survive, and Josie's story was never quite the same each time she told it.

This is the complex and intriguing premise behind Laura Lippman's new book, To the Power of Three, recently published by William Morrow. Those who may know Lippman's earlier Tess Monaghan mysteries — among them, Baltimore Blues, Butchers Hill and By a Spider's Thread — might not expect the depth of characterization and the sheer mastery on display here. Not that the Monaghan books aren't well done and lots of fun. It's just that To the Power of Three is not only the best psychological suspense novel I've read since probably the last Ruth Rendell, it's also one of the best novels I've read recently. It's simply in a different league from its predecessors.

Three is propelled by a narrative drive rare in literary fiction, a drive most associated with genre fiction of various types. But the amazing thing is that Lippman never skimps; the drive is always there, and yet she never falls back on genre clichés to keep the pace going. Reading it reminded me of what it was like to gobble up books when I was young. I couldn't wait to see what was going to be revealed next, while alternately dreading the fact that each step took me closer to the book's finale.

Though the plot is of the utmost importance here, it's not the only thing that matters. Lippman lets her characters find their own way; they develop and move at their own pace, while she controls it all, a truly amazing feat. She does description and social commentary effortlessly. And she also manages to break our hearts. This is one of the saddest stories I've ever read, a truly tragic tale of parents and children and a terrible series of misunderstandings that have far-ranging consequences.

To the Power of Three is populated by a wide array of secondary characters, none of whom ends up seeming superfluous or dragged in purely for color. It's only when you turn the last page that you realize how each piece of the puzzle fits, and how one movement in the fictitious Baltimore suburb of Glendale has affected so many others.

Aside from the sad trio at the heart of the book, and the police officers digging into the past, the considerable cast includes the three girls' parents, all different and intriguing types; Kat's former boyfriend, a promising actor on the verge of getting his first big break; several members of the school staff; and other students, any number of whom have watched the three friends throughout the years, often longing to be included in their charmed inner circle.

Lippman was a newspaper reporter for 20 years, the last 12 of which were spent at the Baltimore Sun. She knows of what she speaks, whether it's how girls relate to one another, or the intricacies of family life, or the topography of the city and suburbs and how they both grew.

The novel also has an intriguing structure that accounts for much of its success. We begin on Thursday, on the night before the crime, but when Friday dawns we're witness only to the bloody aftermath. Then, we move day by day as the investigation proceeds. But at the end of each of the novel's six sections, we take a step back in time, beginning when the three friends are in third grade, and moving all the way up to their somber commencement exercises. As the police strip away layer after layer, Lippman uses the past to add to the picture, spreading before us several new details with each foray backwards, until we learn the truth about why these three girls wound up in that bathroom together and who did what to whom.

A Master of Detail

Lippman's prose is always measured, restrained, never merely sensationalistic:

"Of the two girls taken alive from the bathroom, only one of them, a girl with a bullet in her right foot, would be of any immediate help to the detectives. The other survivor, believed to be the shooter, had lost part of her face, as Lenhardt heard it, and although Shock Trauma might save her life, it was less clear what else could be salvaged. … Much of the blood around them was undoubtedly hers. She had leaked a lot in the 20 minutes or so before she was transported.

"The dead girl, who was still here with them, had died swiftly, from an almost freakishly precise gunshot wound to the chest, maybe straight to the heart, so there was very little of her blood. Was this marksmanship the result of luck or skill? It didn't jibe with Lenhardt's knowledge of Glendale – upper middle class, liberal. But then there were still pockets of farms in the area, rural families with old-fashioned values. A girl raised in such circumstances might be comfortable with a gun. If she knew how to use a gun, however, and had always planned to use it on herself, why had she fired into her cheekbone instead of her temple? And why shoot the other girl at all?

"One thing he was willing to bet on: The dead girl, the one on the floor, wasn't the kind who knew anything about guns. She was a girly-girl, all in pink — pink sandals with cloth roses where the thong nestled between the big and second toes, pale pink pants, and a pale pink polo."

What Lippman does so masterfully is take us from these details, the very stuff of a police report, and add information and descriptions so we not only see these girls before us, with all their varying likes and dislikes, but we soon know their parents as well – their politics and their religious affiliations, what music they like and what books they read, their oddities and quirks – so that in the end we comprehend the full import of this horrible crime.

This is what we expect of the best fiction. We don't always get it there, and we rarely expect to see so much care bestowed on what could have been at heart a murder mystery. There may be a moment or two when you question whether three girls would have followed one another so blindly, year after year, but these lapses in motivation are momentary, and by no means harmful to the whole experience. To the Power of Three is more than just a tour de force, and it bodes well for how Lippman may test her talents in her next, highly anticipated book.



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