In an author’s note at the end of this thoughtful and engaging novel — her 20th work of fiction— Laura Lippman reports that her husband urged her to “write a novel inspired by Julian Salsbury, the head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore” in the 1970s who was “convicted of mail fraud” but “disappeared never to be seen again,” leaving behind “a wife, three daughters, and a girlfriend.” Lippman is “not particularly interested in real stories” but found herself “fascinated by the idea of the five women left behind. What is a wife without a husband, daughters without a father, a mistress without a lover? I turned it into a crime story because that’s what I do, but it’s important to stress here that there was no murder case in real life. So beyond the setup, [the family in this novel] has nothing to do with the Salsbury family. It would be unfair to them to infer otherwise — and also unfair to my imagination.”
Point well taken. Too often, too many readers assume that because fiction sometimes has its roots in specific fact, the end result is merely fact with the names changed. But fiction doesn’t work that way, at least not serious fiction, and despite her modest disclaimer that crime stories are “what I do,” Lippman is a serious writer whose books, most of them set in her home town of Baltimore, are inventive and speculative inquiries into what Anthony Trollope called “the way we live now.” Along the way she has painted a portrait of Baltimore that is as fully rounded, complex and revealing as the one painted by Anne Tyler, though the Baltimore of Lippman’s Tess Monaghan is quite different from the Baltimore of, say, Tyler’s Macon Leary.
Tess Monaghan, as Lippman’s many loyal readers well know, is the private investigator about whom Lippman has written 11 novels, the first of them, “Baltimore Blues” (1997), being my own favorite. “After I’m Gone” is not part of the Monaghan series but, like seven of Lippman’s other books, a self-contained novel with only glancing connections to her other work beyond the Baltimore locale. Though its story revolves around Felix Brewer, the charismatic bookmaker and numbers kingpin, he is present on only a handful of pages. The real central characters are the five women whom he deserts rather than face federal imprisonment on a gambling conviction — his beautiful wife, christened Bernadette but universally known as Bambi; his three daughters, Linda, Rachel and Michelle; and his mistress, Julie — and though Lippman does construct a murder mystery around them, her real story is the evolution of their lives after his disappearance.
Felix takes flight in the book’s opening chapter, hidden in a horse trailer driven by Julie’s grumpy sister, Andrea; the year is 1976, and he is “flying from a small airfield outside Philadelphia to Montreal” and thence to points known only to himself, clandestine international travel being far easier then than it has been since Sept. 11, 2001. Of the five women, only Julie knows what he’s doing. Bambi, now in her 30s, and the three girls — Linda and Rachel are in their teens, Michelle a mere 3 — have been kept in the dark, and it takes awhile for it to dawn on them that life now, perhaps life forever, will be life without Father: “this frozen life, like something out of a fairy tale, where everyone was suspended, waiting, waiting, waiting for the man who never came, never called, never did anything to prove he truly cared for them.”
In that sense their lives may be frozen, but Bambi and the girls carry on, in their different and variously resourceful ways. Julie is less fortunate. In 2001, a quarter-century after Felix’s disappearance, human remains are found by a dog in a large Baltimore park and identified as hers; evidence indicates that she had been murdered in July 1986, when she had disappeared from her residence in the Susquehanna River town of Havre de Grace. The case is pursued diligently by various detectives, but eventually abandoned and filed away among other cold cases. Then, in 2012, it is picked up by Sandy Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective who works cold cases for a flat annual fee, no overtime or expenses. He is a laconic man in his early 60s whose parents got him out of Cuba when he was a small boy but were killed in an accident not much later. He grew up in the care of a dreadful woman who gave him nothing approximating love; he found it in his marriage, but his wife is now dead, after a terrible siege of cancer, and he is on his own.
One by one, he talks to all the Brewer women: Bambi is in her early 70s, still beautiful, still missing Felix and still angry at Julie; Linda and Rachel are middle-aged, reasonably happily married to decent men, while Michelle, every bit as glamorous as her mother, is married to a wealthy hand surgeon and has two children. Each of them could have had motives for killing Julie, Bambi and Rachel most particularly, but devising and then solving a mystery is of less interest to Lippman in this case than examining what sorts of women they have turned into and how the absence of Felix has altered their lives.
The simple fact of his fate being completely unknown is at the heart of it. If he had been killed by one of the many unsavory characters with whom his business brought him into contact, it would have been a terrible blow to them all, but it would have had a certain comforting finality once the shock had worn off: They would have known that he was dead and that he was never coming back. Instead, as Linda tells Rachel: “There’s always been this stupid fiction that he comes back, like some benevolent spirit, standing at the rear of the synagogue, like Elijah on Passover. He’s never come back. And he’s never coming back.” Even Linda herself is susceptible to delusion: “Linda . . . expected him to come back. She still expected him to come up the walk. So she wouldn’t petition for his life insurance, or even ask for the modest veterans’ pension to which he was entitled.”
This comes in a chapter set in September 2001, two weeks after 9/11, the month when Julie’s remains are discovered and Sanchez’s search for her killer gets underway. He interviews a great many people, but the killing took place a quarter-century ago, and hard evidence isn’t easily come by. He describes the case file of almost 800 pages to a young man with whom he’s struck up a friendly acquaintance, and the man remarks: “Did you know the more we tell a story, the more degraded it becomes? Factually, I mean. It’s like taking a beloved but fragile object out of a box and turning it over in your hands. You damage it every time.” Sanchez, who’s impatient with people spouting theories about crime that come from watching cop shows on television, recognizes the truth in this observation, because “he had begun to pay careful attention to the subject of memory, key in cold cases.”
Which brings us to the point in this review where disclosures about the plot of “After I’m Gone” come to an end. Lippman is as skillful at plot as she is at characters and setting, and the twists in the novel’s final pages are both surprising and satisfying. They contain some well-earned messages about love and loyalty, illusion and delusion. Like everything else Lippman has written, “After I’m Gone” transcends the limits of genre. Like George Pelecanos, Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and a handful of others, she writes books that are great fun but also serious fun.
AFTER I’M GONE
By Laura Lippman
Morrow. 334 pp. $26.99