Three girls, deadly secrets

July 10, 2005|By Judith Redding | Judith Redding,Special to the Sun

Novel

To the Power of Three

By Laura Lippman. William Morrow. 436 pages.

To the Power of Three is no simple whodunit that takes a high school shooting as its starting point. Veteran Baltimore mystery writer Laura Lippman takes a break from her P.I. Tess Monahan novels to study the social pressures bearing on teenagers in an upper-middle-class suburban development.

Kat Hartigan, the daughter and granddaughter of the housing development's planners, has been groomed to succeed, to be the best, to fulfill her father's foiled dream of going to Stanford. Perri Kahn is looking at a college career in theater arts at North-western. Josie Patel doesn't have the grades -- or the money -- to attend a top school. She settles for a cheerleading scholarship at the University of Maryland. The three girls are best friends and have been inseparable since third grade, when they made a vow to "be true to each other and to do good in the world at large."

As the novel opens, the three seniors have been shot in a bathroom at their suburban Baltimore high school. Kat, at the top of her class, popular and overwhelmingly nice, is dead. Perri, the drama club powerhouse, has been shot in the head and is not expected to live. Josie, a cheerleader and gymnast, is shot in the foot. And the door to the bathroom has been locked. From the inside.

Josie tells police that Perri shot Kat, that Perri and Josie struggled for the gun and Josie was shot, that Perri then shot herself, a plausible sequence of events.

First on the scene, Sgt. Harold Lenhardt sees that the evidence doesn't add up. Blood trails in the bathroom don't follow Josie's sequence of events, and Lenhardt suspects a fourth girl was present, a witness to the shooting. But who locked the door after the fourth girl left the bathroom? Why would Perri want to shoot her best friend? Kat and Perri had become estranged in the last year, but no one, not even Josie, seems to know why.

The buzz at the school is that an argument over which girl would get the lead role in the school musical caused the rift between Kat and Perri. Where did the gun come from? Could Josie have killed her friends, and then shot herself in the foot as a cover-up? Lenhardt is not alone in thinking that Josie's version of the shooting isn't quite right.

Eve Muhly, one grade behind the girls in school and Kat's neighbor, intimated to school guidance counselor Alexa Cunningham that she knows something about the mysterious fourth girl, but Eve now won't talk. When the high school principal tells Alexa to lose Perri's final paper, so that the comatose senior will not graduate, Alexa sees the interfering hand of Kat's powerful father, Dale Hartigan. Although Alexa is sure Perri turned in her last paper, she can no longer find it. Did Alexa misplace it? Was it stolen, and by whom? The issue is moot when Perri is taken off life support, and Josie, who had hoped all along that Perri would pull through and tell what happened, realizes that it is up to her to speak the bitter truth.

Lippman's deft hand at tracking the twists and turns of a criminal investigation, of throwing wrenches into the works, of breaking a childhood pledge, make To the Power of Three an addicting and chilling page-turner and a powerful indictment of class status and popularity, of the mirror microcosm that high school is of the larger world. Benjamin Franklin observed: "Three can keep a secret, if two are dead." Lippman, at the end of her engaging novel, asks if such a secret is indeed worth keeping.

Judith Redding is an award- winning experimental filmmaker and the co-author of Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors. She lives in Philadelphia.

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