It's a complicated talc that Richard Papen, the narrator of this ambitious and highly touted first novel, has to tell. It is grim; it is grisly; it is compelling—and ultimately unrewarding.
Chafing against the barrenness of life in a Northern California town and determined to study ancient Greek, Richard snares a scholarship to a small Vermont college. Initially rebuffed by the only professor in classics, Richard perseveres and is soon studying Plato with the live other students in the program. They are an odd, arrogant, callous lot: the ringleader and intellectual, Henry; the homosexual, Francis; the blond twins, Charles and Camilla; and the boob of the group, Edmund (Bunny). Inspired by one of the professor's lectures, all except Richard and Bunny attempt to replicate a bacchanal, in the process inadvertently killing a passerby. When it looks as though the unstable Bunny might squeal, the others, Richard included, calmly plot his murder.
The Secret History is full of references to Pliny, Milton. Constable and poems like Eliot's "The Waste Land." But while Tartt, something of a show-off, has done her homework as a scholar, she hasn't quite passed as a novelist. She fashions some intriguing relationships, like the peculiar tie between Henry and the professor, but fails to give them shape or context. Incidents that appear to be leading somewhere prove dead end. Worse, Tartt never quite makes palpable her characters' supposed charisma or makes comprehensible their hold on Richard.
Meant to be a tale of golden youth tarnished, of privilege and intellect run amok, Secret is instead 544 pages of low-wattage Crime and Punishment. Sadly, it's the reader who does time. (Knopf, $23)