Who among us has never told a lie? The power of domestic suspense comes from its ability to infuse the everyday with horror, even something as mundane as a little white lie. Few authors are more skilled than Jean Potts at tapping into these anxieties, and The Little Lie (reissued by Stark House) may be her masterpiece. Potts uses a single moment of dishonesty to prod at the many other secrets and lies hidden beneath the surface of small-town life, as one small sin escalates into shocking consequences.
Embarrassed to be dumped by her boyfriend on his way out of town, Dee pretends that they are still together and she will be joining him later in New York. However, unexpected events back her into a corner. Before she knows it, the lie has taken over her life. Is there a way Dee can stop living a lie…and does she even want to stop?
Dee is the main character in The Little Lie, but she is far from being a heroine. Dee is introduced under sympathetic circumstances, broken-hearted by the end of her relationship. In the moment, her lie seems understandable. The more the reader learns about her, though, the more obvious it becomes that Dee is a difficult personality. She resents having wasted her youth tending to a controlling father. There are hints of scandals and broken relationships in her past. Dishonesty may not be out of character for her.
The brilliance of the concept is that it doesn’t matter. Potts deftly recreates the emotional arc of telling a lie: the thoughtless way it first pops out, the brief high of getting away with it, and the shame and humiliation at the thought of being exposed. These emotions are so universal and visceral that it’s impossible not to identify with Dee’s terror, even if it’s not always easy to identify with Dee herself.
Dee’s boarding house is full of people who are, on the surface, a lot like her. Her brother Oliver, sister-in-law Erna, and boarder Mr. Fly are all dejected middle-aged people who lack the courage or the competence to escape from their past failures. Erna and Mr. Fly begin investigating Dee—not out of suspicion, but out of desperation. If they can find something wrong with Dee, then they don’t have to think about the many things wrong with their own lives. Oliver is afraid to strike out on his own, so he uses Dee as an excuse. Secret drinker Erna finds it easier to blame Dee for all her disappointments than to face her situation honestly. Mr. Fly, for murky reasons, keeps losing jobs as a teacher, rendering him unemployable. Dee’s mysterious behavior promises to be just the distraction he needs. All of these people are living a lie, just as much as Dee.
The suspense of The Little Lie is all the more horrifying because it is so relatable. It is about the small agonies of worrying that you will give away an embarrassing secret, while praying that your family and neighbors don’t already suspect. Minor indignities build until the characters’ capacity for self-deception breaks down, with dire results. The finale is truly shattering; and yet, like a Greek tragedy, inevitable. The Little Lie deserves your vote for Reprint of the Year, and that’s the truth.