The book jacket here promises so much. An eerie murder initiates the plot and injects a huge sense of foreboding. An ominous doll – evil, perhaps? – is splayed on the cover. The author herself also stares out from her back-flap portrait, with omniscience, seduction, and a hot, jet-black outfit. Even the font – the Font! - is really cool-looking. However, we all know the old adage about passing judgment on a volume based solely upon its protective covering: it’s wrong to do that.
Despite that attractive premise, what follows is a certified boondoggle of a story. During her summer vacation, Harriet Dufresne is determined to solve the 12-year-old murder of her brother Robin before she enters the Sixth Grade in September. She soon picks her main suspect, Danny Ratliff, a peer of Robin’s, and swears to enact revenge. The narrative plot keeps meandering, though, between this plot and other plotlines involving death, coming of age, and the Ratliff family’s drug trade. The one problem is (warning: spoiler) that this murder never even comes close to being solved, and the other storylines never form a coherent narrative to tie it in together.
Some of the elements are pretty cool; the setting of 1970’s Natchez, Mississippi is enough to make the book interesting, and Harriet’s obsession with adventure books and Houdini make her an enjoyable kid to follow. And there’s no question that this author can write. The characters are good. In fact, Harriet’s tagalong friend Hely is perhaps too accurate a illustration of a 13-year-old boy who thinks James Bond is the coolest thing to ever happen (trust me, I’ve been there, folks). This precise depiction of early pubescent bullshit, though, is as frightening as this book gets. These positive elements can’t help a bloated, meandering plotline that could have been half the length.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read Tartt’s previous novel, The Secret History, for which she is mostly known. Well, that book must be better than this one, and I would be willing to give it a shot.