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August 07, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

Like the kingdom lost for want of a nail, the troubles of Big Little Lies begin with one precarious shoe: a Dolce & Gabbana stiletto (”gorgeous…bought online, thirty percent off”) whose spindly heel’s collapse sets in motion a chain of general mayhem — and ultimately murder — in a picturesque Australian seaside community.

The heel belongs to Madeline, still a ”glittery girl” at 40 with a fondness for impractical footwear that leaves her ankle-sprained and splayed in a busy intersection just as young single mother Jane passes by. Jane is as plain as her name and almost pathologically uncomfortable in her skin, and she and giddy extrovert Madeline don’t seem to have very much in common beyond Pirriwee Public, their children’s shared kindergarten. But they become unlikely fast friends and quickly pull in skittish beauty Celeste, another ”kindy mum” with her own unruly twins at Pirriwee.

The secrets burrowed in this seemingly placid small town — beyond its central homicide, the plot takes on school bullying, infidelity, Internet predators, and domestic violence — are so suburban noir they would make David Lynch clap with glee. And in less skilled hands Lies could easily have devolved into a messy pileup of teachable-moment tropes. But Moriarty, the best-selling author of The Husband’s Secret and What Alice Forgot, is a fantastically nimble writer, so sure-footed that the book leaps between dark and light seamlessly; even the big reveal in the final pages feels earned and genuinely shocking.

Praise for Moriarty seems to come with a faintly condescending asterisk, probably because her books do, in the broadest sense, fit the label ”chick lit.” But more than anything she feels like a humanist: a writer whose insights aren’t any less wise or funny or true just because she sometimes likes a champagne metaphor or hangs her story on a shoe. A

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