As a baby, Harriet could well have seen her nine-year-old brother killed by hanging as she rocked on the porch in a small southern US town. At 12, in the Seventies, she spends the summer tracking Danny Ratliff, the redneck youth she believes killed him. As in all the best fictional school holidays, time appears barely to move while momentous events crowd into a few days and children ponder on whether growing up is worth the trouble.
Donna Tartt's long-awaited second novel is not a standard loss-of-innocence story, although Harriet's quest inevitably reveals the chasms between the black, poor white and middle-class communities. Semi-neglected during her mother Charlotte's extended mourning, this self-sufficient, driven young woman has a chip of ice in her heart and is skilled at manipulating her well-meaning grandmother and great-aunts. To compensate for her silence and powerlessness as a baby, she is constantly in trouble for being too clever and too questioning. Her composure collapses only when her careless talk causes her mother to sack their much-loved black maid.
Hely, the boy next door, is smitten with Harriet and willing to help her kill Ratliff, which means first catching a poisonous snake from the collection of a shady travelling preacher (one of a compelling cast of southern Gothic grotesques).
Harriet feels like a tourist in Hely's world of regular meals and casually loving parents. He is secure in expecting retribution for coming home late and dirty, or leaving his bike behind after liberating a cobra. Harriet is bemused when her mother finally berates her for her absence one foodless suppertime, until it becomes clear that the stupefied Charlotte has confused evening with day, and thinks her daughter has been out all night.
One of the first reviews referred to the Famous Five flavour of Harriet and Hely's misguided manoeuvres. This misses the sense of powerlessness that the children feel in an adult world and the high stakes of their doom-laden adventures. These "investigative passages" do have the edge of good contemporary teenage fiction but the tone is more Robert Cormier than Enid Blyton. However, it is true that Harriet is more interesting for who she is than what she does.
The power of Tartt's first novel, The Secret History, is less concentrated in this substantial second book; it returns when we glimpse Harriet back on the porch, reading through twilight, dining on a Popsicle and, later, playing with her absent father's gun collection.