If the first line of Laura Lippman’s new novel Wilde Lake (Morrow, review copy) reminds you of the first line of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, you’re not wrong. Lippman’s layered story of family mystery and mythology, past crimes and present consequences, was inspired by Lee’s classic, and it works as both a reimagining and homage.
We don’t usually think of To Kill a Mockingbird as a crime novel, but of course it is: A white woman, Mayella Ewell, accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of rape, and a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, defends Robinson in 1930s small-town Alabama. But there is so much more to the book as young Scout Finch narrates the events of three years, especially her adventures with older brother Jem and visiting neighbor Dill as regards the reclusive Boo Radley.
There are recognizable counterparts to all of these characters in Wilde Lake, but the time frame has been updated — present day, with flashbacks to the late 1970s — and the setting moved to the Maryland town of Columbia, a planned community. Lippman braids an even tighter and more complicated story than Lee, shifting between past and present, as narrator Luisa “Lu” Brant, the new state’s attorney for Howard County, discovers a surprising link between the murder case she is trying now and the tragic events of the fall of 1980. That’s when a family friend was accused of a crime, her older brother AJ broke his arm and a man died. Lu has always thought she knew what happened then, having overheard her father Andrew Brant, who was state’s attorney at the time, question AJ and his friends. Race and class weren’t really part of it, Lu thought as a child. But the truth is more elusive than Lu ever imagined, and once known, can’t be unknown.
Most of this unraveling takes part in the book’s last third, and it’s the most emotionally involving and suspenseful section because Lippmann abandons the familiar confines of Mockingbird, making the source material her own. Not that the earlier part isn’t interesting: Lippman artfully meshes scenes inspired by Lee’s story with the one Lu tells. Like Scout before her, Lu adores her father, tags after her brother, wonders about her mother, pesters the housekeeper. She gets sent to her room for questioning a classmate’s table manners. She watches neighbor Miss Maud’s house burn down. It makes perfect sense that she grows up to be a fiercely competitive lawyer who, after the early death of her husband, moves back in with her father and calls on housekeeper Teensy to help care for her young twins. She is good at compartmentalizing, even managing a secret liaison once or twice a month. When a homeless man with mental issues is accused of breaking into an apartment and killing the middle-aged woman who lives there, Lu sees a a case she can win handily.
Lippman wrote Wilde Lake before Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was published last year. I didn’t care for Watchman, but not because of Lee’s version of grown-up Scout and a racist Atticus. Rather, it read like an unedited first novel, lacking Mockingbird’s all-of-a piece quality. No such problem with Wilde Lake. It is carefully wrought, an arresting crime novel that explores changing attitudes about race and sex and mental illness, about the nature of truth, the fallibility of heroes. Inspired storytelling.