…and the Mysterians

In search of new mystery authors, I have now read three novels by Laura Lippman. I’m giving up on her. Too slow-paced, and when you scrutinize the plots they tend to have holes. I’ll put up with holes in a mystery plot, up to a point — but only if the writing is taut.

Last night I plowed through Lippman’s To the Power of Three. Spoilers follow.

The story concerns a shooting at a high school, in the girls’ restroom. Two girls end up dead, and a third is shot in the foot. The third girl tells the cops what happened — one of the dead girls burst in, drew the gun, fired, then there was a struggle over the gun, in which the shooter got shot. But the evidence doesn’t quite add up. 400 pages later, the third girl gives it up and tells the cops what really happened.

The obvious problem with that thumbnail sketch is that the police don’t really solve the case. They bumble around, and then the third girl has an attack of conscience and tells the truth. Also, there’s not a thimbleful of suspense.

What’s worse, in the end it turns out there wasn’t a murder at all. The first girl shot the second girl by accident, and then shot herself. The third girl then deliberately shot herself in the foot, so as to confuse the police. Her motives for doing so, however, are murky at best. What it amounts to is, if she had told the truth from the outset, there wouldn’t have been a novel.

In the end, it’s revealed that there was a fourth girl in the restroom, who scampered away before the cops arrived. This girl’s presence was key to the whole encounter — but in order to mystify the reader, Lippman has to hide the identity of the fourth girl until the very end. She’s not among the six or eight viewpoint characters who have whole chapters to themselves. When she shows up in the final flashback (popping out of the restroom stall), we’ve never met her, so she isn’t a real character, just a name. When the whole plot pivots on a character who isn’t there, you have a problem.

Along the way, Lippman spends far too much time dallying over inessentials. She’s as likely to describe the cop playing with his young daughter as to move the story forward. Given how thin the story was, of course, this is what you have to do to fill 400 pages. There are long flashbacks to when the three girls were in grade school and middle school. (I skipped those.) A lot of mysteries revolve around incidents in the past. Ross MacDonald was a master at this kind of thing. But MacDonald never wrote flashbacks. When you learn about the past, it’s from the viewpoint of the detective, who is learning about it all in the present. This approach keeps the story line taut.

Anyway. The girl with the gun, it turns out, wasn’t intending to shoot anybody. She was grandstanding, to try to get the second girl to tell the truth about an incident from the year before. Why she was grandstanding with a loaded revolver, instead of carefully unloading it ahead of time … well, adolescents make bad decisions sometimes, but this girl’s SATs were well over 1500, so she qualifies as bright enough to have at least thought it over. But apparently not. In Chapter 1 we’re given to understand that she had never fired the gun, and because we’re in her point of view the clear inference is that she wanted to try firing it before she put it in her backpack and took it to school. Again, the author is manipulating us. The author is leading us to suppose that the girl is planning to shoot people. Only at the end of the book do we learn that she had no such intention.

Before going to school that morning, the girl with the gun writes and mails a letter. In this letter the truth is revealed. But of course the letter gets lost. It gets lost, moreover, in an extremely improbable way. It’s a two-page handwritten letter, and somehow she manages to put only the second page (the one that’s missing the crucial information) in the envelope, leaving the first page inadvertently stapled to the back of her homework. As Terry Pratchett’s librarian says, “Ook.”

There’s also an entirely gratuitous bit of violence near the end, in which a young man who has nothing material to do with the case is killed by the fourth girl’s father in an unprovoked attack, using a shotgun. Apparently there’s a stand your ground law in effect in Maryland, because the father isn’t charged.

According to the dust jacket, Lippman has won the Edgar, Agatha, Shamus, and Nero Wolfe awards. I’m sure she’s a very nice person, and successful too. I only wish she’d spent a few months somewhere along the line reading Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

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