Riddle takes us back to when she was 13, still a little kid. She has fire-engine-red hair and what must be a slightly goofy appearance, especially when measured against the astonishing good looks of her mother, Greer Foley, a retired movie star. Greer’s disposition is anything but beautiful, though. She’s Cruella de Vil, reincarnated. Her beauty is like the house, pure heaven, while her thoughts and deeds are hell. Her husband — the head of the family in name only — is known by the affectionate nickname Camp. He’s running for Congress, but earlier in life he was a biographer, historian and composer of failed off-Broadway plays.
And there they are, on this lovely property, where Camp spent his childhood years. Their next-door neighbor is Gin, a hysterical confirmed bachelor, much given to tantrums and tears, who breeds horses and lives off his mother’s handouts.
The year is 1972. Watergate has broken out, with all its sordid scandal and lies. Camp is running for office in good faith, but a neighbor, Michael Devlin, childhood friend of both his and Greer’s, returns from long travels with a book in hand, a memoir of his own good deeds in the war and Camp’s bad ones. This sends Camp into a dither, denying ahead of time anything that Michael might say, insisting he’s a born liar. The two men come to blows. Both of them accuse and deny. (Michael and Greer have an amorous history, which adds to the drama.)
But Riddle — pure, asexual, unformed — watches and doesn’t notice. She loves her house and their four basset hounds, who lounge around the place. One afternoon, chasing after a lost puppy, she finds herself in neighbor Gin’s stable: “Grabbing the mare’s mane, I hoisted myself onto her bare back, the foal looking on. . . . I lay down on her back, a human blanket, arms and legs extended downward, limp and defeated, my face pressed against her withers, soaking up her body heat even as she absorbed mine.” For a few moments she forgets the lost puppy, only to be terrified by what happens next: “Someone was running down the long stable corridor” — crying, panting, moaning, clearly dying. Riddle, listening, is found by the murderer, whom I won’t identify, although it’s plain to the reader before Page 50. The rest of the novel isn’t a whodunit, but a search for explanation. Why should such a terrible thing happen?
Riddle is almost literally scared out of her wits, since the murderer knows that she knows, and takes the opportunity at every turn to find her alone, to taunt her, break into her room and so on. Her parents remain sublimely oblivious: her mother totally into her own drama, and her father continually preening, in love with his own political dreams.
A terrible crime has been committed. Riddle, one of the sweetest creatures in contemporary literature, knows she should tell but can’t. (Watergate in the background is, of course, fantastically apropos.) What’s worse, the deed or the coverup? We’ll never really know. But this novel goes way past the question into the realm of really terrific fiction.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.