Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, the protagonist of Donna Tartt's 555-page second novel, The Little Friend, is an intelligent, impertinent, unpopular, black-haired, tomboyish seventh grader with a steady gaze. A reluctant preteen. The kind of delightfully stubborn child who distresses kindly aunts by turning religion against good old-fashioned manners. "I don't see why," Harriet declares on one occasion, "loving my neighbor means telling him that I love fruitcake. When I don't." Especially since "the Bible says not to lie."
At 12 years old, Harriet is the youngest member of the Cleve family, an old Mississippi clan that suffered three major losses within six months of her birth: Its patriarch died; its plantation manor was sold; and, on Mother's Day, its nine-year-old scion Robin was mysteriously murdered in his own front yard. Now, memories of better times are played like lullabies at every Cleve family gathering. And though remnants of old wealth--"monogrammed dishes," "china clocks"--lie scattered about her aunts' prim middle-class houses, Harriet is too young to remember a time before Robin's death knocked her own home into an "atmosphere of neglect, lassitude, sadness." As far as she remembers, her mother has always "wafted into an indifference which numbed and discolored every area of life." Her 16-year-old sister has always been "slightly unhinged" by the horror of witnessing Robin's death. And her moody, autocratic father has always lived eight hours away with his Nashville mistress. "To Harriet," Tartt notes, "this arrangement seemed perfectly reasonable."
Without a trace of sentimentality, the author captures not only the nightmares of Harriet's lonely existence, but also its many pleasures. Long passages are devoted to Harriet's nighttime explorations of her "dark, silent" house, where, after 9:00 p.m., no one is awake to prevent her from opening her father's gun case or from jumping on the sofa cushions in stocking feet. In gorgeous prose and biting dialogue, Tartt chronicles Harriet's obsessions (archaeology, Captain Scott, Harry Houdini), her terrors (church camp, Teen Talks), and her complicated family relations. In fact, if the sections about the arrangement of Harriet's life were excerpted and bound together, they would form a beautiful novel, detailing the way unending grief can handicap a family, and the way anger and solitude can inspire a girl's intellectual development. The touchstone of these hypnotizing 300 pages would be the line "It's awful to be a child...at the mercy of other people."
Tartt's first book was a best-selling novel about murder among the college elite, and if Harriet's intellect reminds one of the characters in The Secret History, so does her fascination with death and violence. So it's no great surprise when, in a fit of hot summer boredom and ambition, Harriet lies on the floor of her bedroom and decides to find her brother's killer. What is a surprise is that, having revealed its plot's main engine around page 77, Tartt's novel suddenly begins to sputter. The bad guys march in like a troop of caricatures, snorting drugs, bullying black people, talking like hillbillies, and raving against the federal government.
And the long, ringing lines Tartt's earlier prose bruise to purple. "Little Robin's murder" "festers" like "a wound that never healed." Boys look at girls and think "Carramba"! Suddenly, you begin to notice that all the good characters like cats.
The fact is that, though she can be brilliantly suspenseful, Tartt is not very good at cloak-and-dagger mystery or aim-and-fire action. The portions of the novel where Harriet questions adults about Robin's murder read like clunky spoofs of Nancy Drew, while the crucial action scenes contain enough mechanical errors to halt any rising adrenaline. In a crucial scene, for example, Harriet perches atop an old water tower, so high up that when another character drives up and parks "down below--far across the field, towards the woods," she finds his car is "too far to see very well." Nonetheless, a moment later, Harriet notices that there is blood "sprayed in drops on the windshield" and that the way the man holds something shiny suggests it is a gun. Too far to see a car but close enough to make out beads of blood and decipher hand gestures? Did our heroine suddenly develop telescopic vision? Why didn't Tartt just give her a pair of binoculars?
The Little Friend is marred by many such technical glitches, but perhaps they could be forgiven if Tartt didn't go on to undermine her weightiest project: the exploration of the connection between heroism and villainy. For though she continues to veer in and out of caricature, Tartt does finally shade a major felon, Danny Ratliff, into complexity. And she does deftly connect Danny's brutal, lonely home life to Harriet's own increasingly miserable situation. So it's entirely believable that, after stalking each other around town, Danny and Harriet both feel that "some weird clarity had flared between them, a recognition of some sort."
As the climax approaches, questions gather suddenly like thunderclouds overhead: Why are actions that we would normally condemn sanctified when they are directed against an enemy? How big is the difference between a murder committed in the white light of justice and one committed in fury or misery? But just as the real moral storm begins, Tartt sweeps away all her dark inquiries with a preposterously unlikely ending that leaves Harriet standing with her hands clean, as inculpable as a daisy.