By Patrick Anderson
Monday, August 16, 2010; C01
I'D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE
By Laura Lippman
Morrow. 373 pp. $25.99
The highest compliment I can pay Laura Lippman's new novel, "I'd Know You Anywhere," is to say it measures up to "What the Dead Know," which three years ago marked an artistic and commercial breakthrough for the Baltimore-based writer. Both novels, although ultimately quite different, concern the abduction of young women and the decades-long aftermaths of that horror. And while both are thrillers in a basic sense, both transcend that genre, thanks to Lippman's ability to take us into the lives and hearts of women who have been wronged and of the families that suffer with them.
We meet Eliza Benedict when she is 38 and living with her family a few blocks off Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. It's a good life. Her husband is smart, loving and successful. Eliza likes being a stay-at-home mom for Isobel (called Iso), who's 13, precocious and difficult, and Albie, who's 8 and a sweetheart. But Eliza has a terrible secret in her past, and one day, when she and the kids return home after soccer practice, she finds an unexpected, unwelcome letter awaiting her.
The letter is from Walter Bowman, who kidnapped Eliza (Elizabeth, she was then) when she was 15, kept her prisoner for nearly six weeks and raped her. He had killed other girls but spared Eliza. After two decades of appeals and retrials, Walter is on death row in Virginia and within weeks of execution. He wants to see Eliza. To apologize, he says.
It seems unthinkable that she'd have any dealings with this monster. But it's not that simple. She's curious: She wants to know why he let her live. He tempts her with hints that he might confess to other killings and thus ease the pain of families with long-missing daughters. Finally, Eliza is afraid. She has built a new life in a new city where almost no one knows her secret. She's not ready for her children to learn it, and she fears that Walter, if rejected, might rip away her privacy for revenge. The cunning psychopath still has power over her -- and, we learn, has an agenda she cannot perceive.
As Eliza agonizes over a possible meeting with Walter, the story flashes back to her weeks of captivity. The scenes portraying the interplay between a terrified but perceptive teenager, fighting to survive, and the pretentious misfit who holds her captive are beautifully handled. In present-day scenes, we meet other players in the drama. One is a grotesque woman who has become Walter's emissary to Eliza. Another is the embittered mother of one of the girls Walter killed, who still blames Eliza for not saving her daughter.
Most of all, we come to know Eliza -- in all her decency and pain -- and those closest to her. Lippman once told an interviewer, "I thought I was going to be a tough, gritty dame. But when I sat down to write I realized that I'm not that type: I'm really interested in people and their relationships." Probably less than half of this novel concerns Walter and the abduction. The rest is about Eliza and her family. Her brilliant, overbearing sister Vonnie "was a good sister, in her way, and her way was all she had." On Eliza's lovable son and demanding daughter: "They had been close, if only because Albie worshipped Iso, and Iso enjoyed being worshipped." Walter, murderer, rapist and master of self-justification, writes from death row: "I think I am a different man from the one you knew. More educated. I have read quite a bit. I have thought about the person I was and I am no longer that person." Throughout the novel, Lippman displays an exceptional blend of tough-mindedness and sensitivity.
Lippman was a Baltimore Sun reporter in her late 30s when she published her first Tess Monaghan mystery in 1997. Six more prize-winning Monaghan books followed before she wrote her first stand-alone. Like Dennis Lehane after he'd published five Kenzie-Gennaro private-eye novels, she must have decided she could do better, and like Lehane (who proceeded to write "Mystic River"), she was right. I've read hundreds of thrillers in the past 10 years, and some have been excellent, but only a handful -- thanks to their insights, their characterizations and the quality of their writing -- could equal the best of today's literary fiction. Those few certainly include "What the Dead Know" and "I'd Know You Anywhere." In both cases, Lippman began with a real crime and then used the magic of her imagination to produce novels that are not only hypnotic reading but serious meditations on the sorrows and dangers of this world. Some people would segregate Lippman as a crime or thriller writer. That's a shame. She's one of the best novelists around, period.
Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.