Book Review by Roy E. Perry: Donna Tartt’s “The Little Friend”

Editor’s Note: Roy E. Perry, the self-described “amateur philosopher of Nolensville,” wrote book reviews for “The Tennessean” and “Nashville Banner” for thirty years. He is a regular contributor to “Underground Nashville.”


Donna Tartt, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, begins The Little Friend in the fictional town of Alexandria, Mississippi, where the dead body of a nine-year-old boy, Robin Cleve Dufresnes, has been found hanging from a black-gum tupelo tree. At the time of Robin’s death, his sisters—Allison and Harriet—are four years old and six months old, respectively.

The story resumes twelve years later, when Harriet makes it her consuming mission to solve the baffling cold-case murder: “This was Harriet’s greatest obsession, and the one from which all the others sprang,” Tartt writes. “For what she wanted, more than anything, was to have her brother back. Next to that, she wanted to find out who killed him.”

Twelve-year old Harriet, the central character of the tale, frequents the local library and loves Dickens, Kipling, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Her heroes are the super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes and the escape artist Harry Houdini. She will need all her wits, intelligence, and derring-do to survive the dangers that threaten her.

The lion’s share of the book is devoted to interpersonal relationships within the Cleve and Dufresnes families, which have been devastated by Robin’s death. Central characters include Harriet’s father, who has deserted the family and is living with a mistress in Nashville; Harriet’s mother, who has become a shadowy recluse; and Harriet’s grandmother, great-aunts, and aunts.

Four ne’er-do-wells—members of the “sorry,” low-life, white-trash Ratliff family—are the antagonists of the drama, especially one Danny Ratliff, Robin’s “little friend,” whom Harriet comes to suspect as Robin’s murderer. A stash of crank (methamphetamine) hidden in the town’s abandoned water tower leads to a white-knuckle, nail-biting confrontation between Harriet and Danny Ratliff.

Near novel’s end, we read, “Never had it occurred to [Harriet] that she might be wrong in her suspicions about Danny Ratliff—simply wrong. What if he hadn’t killed Robin after all?” With this doubt came a sickening “fear that she’d stumbled blindly into something terrible.”

The Little Friend is a WHO-dunit and a WHY-dunit, with neither a “who” nor a “why.” The story’s promising complications have no satisfying resolution. Was the final chapter inadvertently misplaced by the author or carelessly deleted by an editor? For this reason, I give this absorbing novel four stars rather than five.

A final comment: One wonders how much Alexandria, Mississippi, resembles Donna Tartt’s girlhood home of Grenada, and to what extent spunky, resourceful, independent, tomboyish Harriet is a mirror image of Donna Tartt.


Donna Tartt was born on December 23, 1963 in Greenwood and grew up in nearby Grenada (both in north-central Mississippi). She has published three novels: The Secret History (1992), The Little Friend (2002), and The Goldfinch (2013), the latter work winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

For other book reviews by Roy E. Perry, please visit:

David M. (Dave) Carew is writer/editor of “Underground Nashville” and the author of the novels “Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville” and “Voice from the Gutter,” both now available at and Dave is also a freelance book editor, publicist, seminar and workshop leader, journalist, and advertising / marketing / public relations writer.

Everything Means Nothing to Me: A Novel of Underground Nashville by Dave Carew—which was praised by The Tennessean as “beautiful, haunting, powerful”—is now available in an all-new paperback edition. For more information, please visit:

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Editor’s Note: “Underground Nashville” covers artists, authors, musicians, poets, political figures, and other compelling people and happenings not typically covered by the mainstream Nashville media. It also presents reflections and commentary from an underground/indie perspective, offering “thoughts from the shadows of a great American city.”

Dave Carew


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