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Master Of Suspense - Time Out New York - Review of The Little Friend by Donna Tartt

Ten years after her best-selling debut, The Secret History, Donna Tartt unveils a new mystery, The Little Friend by James Ireland Baker

Call it the Sophomore Slump. Call it unfair. Call it whatever you want. The fact is that-in America, at least-second novels are often disparaged and, quite frankly, forgotten. (Remember E.L. Doctorow's Big as Life? How about Second Heaven, Judith Guest's follow-up to Ordinary People?) It's difficult to imagine Donna Tartt topping her first novel, 1992's The Secret History. More than a decade in the writing, History homed in on a hermetic group of classics scholars at a Vermont university who end up committing murder. Both erudite and unputdownable, the book was clearly the work of a young writer who suddenly mattered; it was justifiably praised by reviewers and embraced by admiring readers-among them Joyce Carol Oates and John Grisham.

Die-hard Secret History fans will perhaps inevitably be let down by Tartt's new book, The Little Friend, which isn't exactly the page-turner its predecessor was. But she isn't worried. "It wasn't like I set out to be a writer of big blockbuster commercial successes," says the Mississippi native, who splits her time between New York City and Virginia. "When I was writing The Secret History, I would have been really happy if, at the end of the process, I had gotten letters from half a dozen strangers who said, 'I really like this book.' I went into The Little Friend with the same attitude, so if people are disappointed because it's not The Secret History, you know, I'm sorry."

Indeed, Tartt knew from the beginning that she wanted to write a very different book. "I wanted to create a sort of Stanley Kubrick effect, like it took place in this sealed-off studio, with everything meticulously art-directed," she says. "Kubrick is my favorite director, and what I really admire about him is that he can direct 2001 and then turn around and direct Barry Lyndon. I wanted to build up a self-contained world that didn't have reference to The Secret History, so that readers could parachute down into a different country."

The country in question is the tiny town of Alexandria, Mississippi, where a precocious 13-year-old girl named Harriet Cleve Dufresnes sets out to solve the gruesome murder of her brother, Robin, 12 years after it was committed. It's a classic mystery setup, but in the end, The Little Friend is more preoccupied with social mores and psychological dynamics than it is with whodunit. And the book's leisurely pace makes it seem either a depiction of or a relic from an era when people, such as Harriet's stay-at-home mother and eccentric aunts, had a lot of free time on their hands.

Tartt herself seems to have plenty. Thanks to the success of The Secret History, which sold more than 1 million copies in the U.S. alone and was translated into 23 languages, she was under no financial pressure to churn out another volume. "I felt very fortunate that I didn't have to just rush out Son of Secret History," says Tartt, 38, who earned enough from the first novel to support herself through the ten years she took to pen The Little Friend. "Too many writers don't have the time to invent something really new after their first book."

Although the decade-plus silence that followed her debut resulted in rumors that Tartt was suffering from a massive case of writer's block, the truth is that the novelist was just working the way she always does-deliberately, slowly and without a support staff. "That kind of [solitary] routine is still very comforting to me," she says. "I have a particular sweater that I like to wear, and I have a little cup that I drink tea out of. I write with a pen, not with a computer. I always come out of my office at the end of the day with ink-stained fingers-literally-and sometimes with ink-stained clothes. I love to use fountain pens, but I am very messy with them, unfortunately."

Despite Tartt's Luddite ways and snaillike pace, she acknowledges that many of the writers she admires-folks like Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates-publish at least a book a year. Oates herself told TONY, "There doesn't seem to be any relationship between the quality of an artist's work and its quantity." But no matter how wonderful a book is, a slow writer may risk losing her audience. "It's a question of whether people have short memories," says Bill Goldstein, books editor of The New York Times on the Web. "Both Robert Caro and Jean Auel took 12 years to finish books, but are people waiting for the next Donna Tartt in the way they were waiting for the next Jean Auel? I hope so."

So what would Tartt have done if her debut hadn't proved so lucrative? Would she have started cranking out suspense novels? "You can never say," she admits. "I wonder if I would have been able to continue at the poverty level, which is what I was doing, for many more years. I am not qualified to perform any well-paying normal job, and writing full-time is an expensive habit." She laughs. "You might as well be a heroin addict."

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