As mystery readers well know, constrained geography ups the likelihood of murder. From John Dickson Carr's mastery of the locked room to Agatha Christie's penchant for country houses to Louise Penny's depiction of nastiness crawling out of the woodwork of one tiny French-Canadian village, death may be bloodless on the page, but secrets possess an even bloodier sense of suppressed rage that is desperate for attention and visibility.
The magical boiling caldron of secrets, unsolved murders and isolation explains the appeal of Carol Goodman's best work -- ironically, being her first and most recent novels, twinned in subject matter and character development. Both "The Lake of Dead Languages," published in 2002, and this month's "Arcadia Falls" (Ballantine: 364 pp., $25) share what should be a dream-like setting of boarding schools situated in towns close enough to the big city of Manhattan but removed enough to suggest earlier time periods, when adolescents were not so technology-dependent and believed in the romance of the heartfelt handwritten diary entry. Both books feature girls on the cusp of womanhood, running the gamut from innocent precocity to succubus-like attraction to dangerous thrills. And both draw heavily from Goodman's knowledge of literary archetypes, from those rooted in the classics to more modern, artistic tropes.
Unlike "Lake," its exploration of issues of returning to a place of happy memories masking darker ones, and of finding one's footing in the midst of tragedy carrying a whiff of bygone suspense novels by Mary Stewart, "Arcadia Falls" features sharper, more contemporary edges. Its narrator, Meg Rosenthal, has no apparent connection to the upstate New York school she's driving her daughter Sally to in the book's opening pages. Both are starting over, escaping from a Manhattan full of sorrow and stress, all due to the sudden death of Meg's investment banker husband Jude and the crippling debt he left behind as a 12th-hour surprise.
Naturally, all is far from right with the world, as Meg muses when the two of them finally reach their out-of-the-way, cobweb-laden destination: "Sally's father is still dead of a heart attack at forty-two and I'm still the bad witch who's sold her childhood home -- her castle and her rights to the kingdom -- and banished us to this peasant's hovel." Quickly, though, mother and daughter find their footing, after a fashion. Meg will teach and delve into Arcadia Falls' most mysterious past, when the school was a fledgling art colony held together by the powerful romantic alliance of Vera Beecher and Lily Eberhardt until the latter's premature and violent death, still unsolved. Sally will embrace a transformed girlhood evoking fairy tales, even as new friendships start unconsciously mirroring the past.
Change is everywhere, and Goodman plumbs the gamut from the most innocuous to the most sinister. Her main thematic vehicle is the changeling story, which crops up early on, just before Meg embarks on her first day of teaching, as she ponders Vera and Lily:
"They created a life here at Arcadia Falls crafted out of their dreams and visions -- a fairy tale kingdom where artists could come and paint and draw and write and compose amidst the beauty of nature, free from society's demands and the stress of commerce and industry. They were changelings. . . who refashioned themselves into the heroines of their own stories. They had come here to reinvent themselves. Perhaps that was part of the reason I'd applied for the job here."
The reader knows before Meg does that Vera and Lily's transformative, if ultimately tragic trajectory, is exactly the reason she made what appears to be such a drastic life change. Removed from the city, an isolated school appears comforting and soothing. Once enmeshed, however, its sinister qualities break free and remind all that they are subject to its capricious whims. Consider the plight of the school's principal, Ivy St. Clare, whose own history links strongly to Vera and Lily: The one she loves turns out to be the weakest tie, and the one she hates holds the most inescapable bond. Another student feels drawn in by Arcadia Falls' earlier history and winds up repeating Lily's doomed ending, almost by preordained intervention. Meg, when she's not fending off danger afflicting Sally and herself, discovers her own deep-seated link to the past -- but not before having to sift through the motives of others either burdened by false knowledge or shocked by new revelations.
And yet, the tone of "Arcadia Falls," suffused as it is with foreboding, is a far cry from gloomy. Goodman's touch is sure-handed, even light, dropping hints and shockers with calibrated ease. She knows just what information the reader needs to turn the pages but has enough trust that the same reader won't rush and gobble up paragraphs to reach the finish line, instead pacing the story for a more languid experience where each sentence, layered on top of another, really counts. And even though the late-game revelation in which Meg and Sally's escapism transforms into destiny is a delicious and necessary treat, the true epiphany emerges some pages earlier, delivered by a student in her final paper:
"What I like about the changeling stories we've read this semester is that the real child always comes back in the end. Your mother isn't fooled. She knows who you really are. Sometimes you wish she didn't. Sometimes you'd rather belong to another family -- a family of fairies who live under a tree in the woods -- but in the end your real family are the people who recognize who you really are."
As Meg discovers, it takes great change -- even the metaphorical escape from one state to another -- to discern where one really belongs. The same could be said for Carol Goodman, who had to wander away from the boarding school gothic of her debut to discover where her voice works best: right back where she started from.