Triviana

The lost children

''By a Spider's Thread''
By Laura Lippman
(Wm. Morrow, 354 pp., $24.95)

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Reviewed by John Orr
August 2004

Laura Lippman brings back private detective Tess Monaghan in ''By a Spider's Thread,'' an involving and impressive tale of a family torn asunder by old sins.

Monaghan is hired by a wealthy furrier, Mark Rubin, to find his wife and children. The police can't do much, they say, because the beautiful Natalie left voluntarily.

Monaghan starts the search somewhat at odds with Rubin because he is an Orthodox Jew who won't even shake her hand -- his belief doesn't allow him to touch a woman other than his wife.

He's stiff, he's proper, he kept his wife at home and controlled her money, which doesn't make Monaghan like him. Monaghan is half Jewish, half Irish, and is all about being tough and self-reliant. Monaghan pretty much assumes Rubin's wife had left to keep from being suffocated.

But the story's not that simple, and Lippman unfolds its depths and manifold ironies with considerable artistry, letting us slowly learn the truth about Natalie, who has survived in life by knowing when to open her mouth and when to shut it. After a while it becomes clear she is as dumb as a mud puddle, but with lesser morals.

Natalie has taken her children -- Isaac, who is 9, and the 4-year-old twins, Penina and Efraim -- on a road trip with the mysterious Zeke. After Isaac -- a very sharp little boy -- tries to tell a bank guard there is something amiss, Zeke starts stuffing Isaac into the car trunk for hours at a time. And feeding bacon to the twins.

Natalie and Zeke -- who has just gotten out of prison -- have planned their escapade for some time, we learn, but each has a different goal in mind.

Monaghan makes clever use of something fun: an online community of women detectives, who hook up with each other at snoop-sisters.com. They help each other with chatty advice about cases and love lives, and even tailing each other's suspects. Lippman makes her readers dance between fear and laughs when one of the snoop sisters -- a librarian -- starts tailing the sociopathic Zeke in a gold Mini Cooper, from only a car length or so in back. Isaac spots her first, but it's not long before Zeke does as well, and we worry about the nice lady in the cute little car.