Laura Lippman, author of the popular Tess Monaghan series, takes a break to explore a stand alone novel. In To the Power of Three she takes an old mystery novel concept, the locked room mystery and updates it, using it to explore upper middle class suburbia in northern Baltimore County.
To the Power of Three opens with a letter being written on the eve of a school shooting by the shooter. Before the start of first period the next day a murder will take place behind a locked bathroom door. Three seniors who were life long friends: one will be dead, one will be critically wounded and the other injured. The only living witness and most of the evidence points to one outcome but a few minor pieces of evidence and the professional eye of a veteran murder police point to other possibilities. What really happened in that room? What caused such a breakdown in this supposedly unpenetrable friendship? Is someone lying, if so why?
Since we know the out come of the murder right from the start To the Power of Three establishes itself as a deep character study of the three principle friends, Kat, Josie and Perri. We are taken back to when they first meet, in the third grade, and when all is said and done we will know these three girls as real, three dimensional people, including all of their personality quirks as well as their flaws. Lippman also takes great pains to make sure that we are also intimately aware of those adults and students that surround the three girls. Parents, teachers, guidance councilors, friends, relatives and other students all become fully realized as the portrait of life in affluent Glendale is explored.
Wisely choosing the backgrounds of the three main characters and some of the other students we are treated to an accurate cross section of this area. While the town of Glendale is fictitious, the surrounding areas of the story are not. Given Lippman’s childhood in Columbia and my own firsthand knowledge of this type of setting there is a pervasive feeling of accuracy in her portrayal of the suburban sprawl that encroaches on rural areas bringing with it new found problems. The retreating farmlands, the land developers who buy the farms, the hold out farmers all serve to give us a socio-historical account of not only an ostensibly small portion of Maryland but on a much larger scale other areas of the country where this is happening as well. Some of the most interesting characters are the daughters of the hold out farmers who must contend with their more well to do class mates while they them selves live an existence that they find embarrassing as it becomes an increasingly harder cross to bear. Whereas it’s a given that student A will go to college Student B needs to raise fat hogs to sell at a county fair to add money to the college coffers.
The nuances of female relationships with each other are expertly explored. All of the Mother/Daughter relationships are expressed differently to give a broad portrait of all the possibilities. The viciousness that the girls release on those classmates that are deemed by the group to be inferior goes a long way to show why some people are just not fond of their high school years. Rumors that are started in elementary and middle school haunt some students like ghosts of sins that were never committed. Cruel “pranks” that horrify as you read them if only because you know that things like this really do happen.
As the lives of everyone slowly make their way to the inevitable conclusion the layers of the event as presented to us at the start begin to peel away. By having the murder presented at the start of the novel the ending leaves one feeling strange, when it happens it is detached and unemotional. But that’s the point, because if the identity of the dead girl was withheld until the end then we would be like those students and adults who falsely remember the dead girl and white wash her life, scrubbing away any and all imperfections until only her angelic nature was left, which of course is a lie. Instead Lippman gives us the identity of the dead girl at the start of the book, so when her death occurs we know her for who she truly is, warts and all, as she lived her life.
The conclusion as its presented is never shocking but very intriguing; Lipmann seems to have painted herself into a corner at some point then finds a solution that is plausible and realistic. In the real world cases don’t end with a judicious finality providing closure for all involved. In visual terms this isn’t Cold Case, NYPD Blue or CSI its Homicide and The Wire, things fizzle out, life limps on and the always reliable murder police moves on to the next case because there is always a next case.