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Posts Tagged ‘Laura Lippman’

wildelake“When my brother was eighteen, he broke his arm in an accident that ended in another young man’s death.”

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.

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hushPrivate investigator Tess Monaghan was once dubbed “an accidental detective” by the Baltimore paper where she had worked as a reporter. Now, in Laura Lippman’s 12th book in the award-winning series, Hush Hush (Morrow, digital galley and ARC), Tess is a seasoned pro at the detective stuff but worries she’s “an accidental mother.” She adores her willful three-year-old Carla Scout but thinks her parenting skills aren’t as good as her boyfriend Crow’s. She’s also still figuring out the balancing act between family and work.

Both Tess’s vulnerabilities and strengths as a mom are integral to Hush Hush as she reluctantly takes on Melisandre Harris Dawes as a client. More than a decade ago, Melisandre left her infant daughter to die in a locked car but was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity, specifically postpartum psychosis. She then gave up custody of her two other daughters to her ex-husband and moved  to Europe. Now, however, the wealthy Melisandre is back in Baltimore with a documentary filmmaker and plans to reunite with her estranged teenagers, 17-year-old Alanna and 15-year-old Ruby. Tess and her new partner, Sandy Sanchez, are hired to assess her security. Death threats, a poisoning incident and a murder further involve Tess in the case of the manipulative mother, as does a stalker who knows way too much about Tess and Carla Scout.

Lippman cleverly shifts perspectives among the major players and includes revealing transcripts from interviews for the documentary. And as in previous Tess books (The Sugar House) and stand-alones (Every Secret Thing), she proves once again how well she knows the wiles and worries of teenage girls. Alanna and Ruby, living with their father and his  new wife and baby son, are a tangle of mixed emotions as they react to the prospect of  their mother’s return. Lippman also portrays the relationship between Tess and Carla Scout with a sure hand, as when the toddler throws a tantrum in the supermarket or berates her mother for saying a bad word. These interactions don’t distract from the story but enhance it, and it’s no accident that clues to its serious puzzles are found in the color of crayons, worn children’s books and the trans fat content of certain name-brand cookies.

carrierSophie Hannah’s domestic suspense procedurals feature married British cops Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. But the duo is almost lost in the byzantine plots of The Carrier (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley), and they’re overshadowed by the unpleasantness of the other characters, all of whom are caught up in dysfunctional relationships of one kind or another.

Where to begin? Hannah starts off with smart, sophisticated tech developer Gaby having to endure the company of provincial, grammar-deficient Lauren after their flight from Germany to England is canceled by bad weather. But when Lauren lets slip something about an innocent man in prison for murder and then flees their grimy airport hotel, Gaby begins to suspect that meeting Lauren is no accident. The innocent man turns out to be Gaby’s lost love Tim, who has confessed to killing his invalid wife Francine but won’t say why. Gaby, who has been living with another man, is so certain Tim is lying that she walks out on her current lover and inserts herself into the investigation. Simon and Charlie are also perplexed by the “Don’t Know Why Killer,” even though Tim’s confession is backed up by his best friends, as well as by Lauren, who is Francine’s caregiver, and her thuggish husband.

Complicated enough for you? Now consider that victim Francine was a thoroughly despicable woman who separated poetry-loving Tim from Gaby and trapped him in a loveless marriage. Why he stayed with her is a puzzle to everyone. Several kinds of crazy are apparently at work here because supposedly brilliant people like Gaby and Tim behave stupidly.

Hannah is relentless in mining everyone’s motives and mindsets, and fans who stick with the story will be rewarded with a conclusion that makes sense in retrospect. I think.

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lippmanBaltimore bookie Felix Brewer is the gone guy in After I’m Gone (Morrow, review copy), Laura Lippman’s artful novel of character and family, mystery and murder. When Brewer faces prison in July 1976, he chooses to disappear for parts unknown, leaving behind his beautiful wife Bambi and their three young daughters, as well as his mistress, former showgirl Julie Saxony. All of their lives are forever shaped by the absence of charismatic Felix. Bambi is forced to turn to her husband’s best friend, a wealthy attorney, for ongoing financial help, believing that Felix is still supporting Julie at the expense of her family.  And when Julie vanishes 10 years after Felix, it’s generally assumed that he sent for her at last — until her body is found some months later at a local park. Still, her murder remains a cold case until 2012, when retired Baltimore detective Sandy Sanchez begins investigating as a consultant.

As in such past novels as I’d Know You Anywhere, Lippman smoothly slips among multiple perspectives and time periods, steadily building suspense as she peels away layers of deceit. Lyrics from the 1950s song “Never Let Me Go” signal each section: “Hold me” “Thrill Me” “Miss Me” “Tell Me.”

Bambi, still lovely at 73, has always been good at keeping secrets. Her grown daughters — working mom Linda, smart, needy Rachel and pretty, selfish Michelle — have inherited that trait, as well as a stubborn belief their father will return. Sandy eventually discovers that all of the Brewer woman had motive and possible opportunity to do away with ambitious Julie, who so believed that Felix would marry her one day that she converted to Judaism.

Sandy, who has his own haunted past,  thinks, “we tend to order things according to the reality we know, as we discover it. All life is hindsight, really, stories informed by their endings.” You can keep that in mind as After I’m Gone reaches resolution — and also that Lippman is so very  good at misdirection.  The coda — “Never Let Me Go” — is perfect.

wakeIn 1920, London is still shadowed by the Great War. The reminders are everywhere, as maimed veterans sell small items door-to-door or park their wheelchairs on street corners. And they’re the lucky ones. A generation is buried in France and Belgium, leaving behind grieving wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers. Anna Hope’s sad and lovely first novel Wake (Random House, digital galley) unfolds over five days in November as Britain awaits the arrival of the coffin of the Unknown Warrior. Hope traces the journey of  this anonymous soldier from his grave in France to London on Armistice Day in a series of italicized passages, but her narrative focuses on three women living with loss.

Hettie’s a dance hall girl, whose share of her sixpence-a-dance wages goes to support her widowed mother and shell-shocked brother. At a nightclub, she encounters a handsome veteran who perhaps will be her ticket to a new life. Evelyn, a bitter spinster whose fiance was killed in the war, immerses herself in work at the Pensions Bureau and wonders how her adored brother seemingly shrugs off the horrors he saw as an officer in the trenches. Ada remains so haunted by the death of her only son Michael that she neglects her husband and life itself. Over the course of the book, Hope delicately reveals the devastating wartime tragedy that unknowingly links the three women.

At one point, Ada stands outside at twilight, watching her neighbors at work in their kitchens. She finds it odd looking “at the rhythms and routines of life. It suddenly seems so clear. Some contract has been broken. Something has been ruptured. How have they all agreed to carry on?”

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Soccer mom. Starbucks customer. Small-business owner. Suburban madam.

You don’t have to tell me which term catches the eye. Nor do you have to tell Helene Lewis, the main character of Laura Lippman’s new novel And When She Was Good (William Morrow, review copy), which is very good indeed.

Heloise is shocked to read the newspaper stories of the death of a “suburban madame” in a nearby Maryland neighborhood. The woman, facing charges, presumably committed suicide, and the search is still on for her little black book of powerful clients.

This is why Heloise has shredders on 24/7 in the locked basement office of her comfortable Turner’s Grove home. Why she disguises her small escort service as an innocuous boutique lobbying firm, the Women’s Full Employment Network, which always pays its taxes. Why her affluent neighbors know her only as the widowed mom of 11-year-old Scott. And Scott is why Heloise will do anything to keep her secret life secret, going so far as to dye her hair red to match her son’s, who looks so much like his father, who he believes is dead. Actually, Val, her former pimp and the most dangerous man she knows, is in prison for life. Val doesn’t know about Scott, and, again, Heloise wants to keep it that way.

But Heloise’s past doesn’t just impinge on her present; it’s threatening to upend her strictly compartmentalized life. The vice cop who has protected her for years is retiring. A “friend” from back in the day wants money. So does one of her employees, who claims she contacted HIV while on the job for Helene. Her estranged mother is seriously ill. And her wussy accountant is suddenly asking pointed questions. But worst of all, Val could soon win an appeal and be out of prison and back in her life. Helene is fighting fires right and left.

Lippman seamlessly shifts between present and past to show how Heloise got where she is, always at the mercy of some man, starting with her abusive, belittling father. An autodidact with a GED, Helene is a scrappy survivor who hasn’t always made the best choices, especially where men are concerned. But her options have been limited. They become even more so once the police discover she has a connection to the dead suburban madam, now a murder victim. And there are other deaths.

Lippman’s cool, measured writing generates both sympathy for Helene and real suspense as her life spins out of control. Yes, there will be blood, but I’m not going to tell you whose. A mother will do anything to keep her child safe.

Heloise first appeared as a character in the novella, “Scratch a Woman.” Still, And When She Was Good is very much a stand-alone novel, and not just from Lippmann’s long-running Tess Monaghan series. Helene’s business is lonely men, but she’s lonely, too. To her mind, she stands apart from other women. That the distance is not as great as she thinks is Lippman’s singular accomplishment.

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Nearing the end of August, and I’m still scanning summer book lists, as if I didn’t have enough incoming on my radar. Blogging has taken a back seat to reading and napping on these slow, syrupy days. My mom’s here, and we seem to be competing as to how many books we can each finish before heading to South Carolina this weekend. We’ll drop off the library books on the way out of town.

Mom didn’t much care for Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, not enough plot for her. But I loved this evocative period piece as Brooklyn native Katey Kontent, the 25-year-old daughter of a Russian immigrant, traverses New York society in 1938. She’s working as a secretary for a Wall Street law firm at book’s beginning, hitting small jazz clubs with her pal Eve Ross, a well-off Midwestern beauty who doesn’t want to be under anyone’s thumb.

Both girls fall into the orbit of handsome banker Tinker Grey, who influences them in unexpected ways. Moving warily among Manhattan’s smart young things, Katey is taken up by a shy millionaire who teaches her to shoot, as well as by an enigmatic widow who pushes her toward a career. By year’s end, Katey, naturally smart, also has wised to the ways of the world and the wealthy, having encountered love, ambition, betrayal and regret.

First-time Towles’ writing is lovely, and the dialogue witty, even if it is set off by distracting, pretentious dashes instead of regular quote marks.  — Why, oh why?

What I like most about Laura Lippman’s stand-alone crime novels is that they are largely character-driven and are meticulously layered as to setting, thought and emotion. By the end of The Most Dangerous Thing, I felt as if I knew the Baltimore neighborhood of Dickeyville and the wooded hills of adjoining Leakin Park.

I’d immediately recognize, too, the five middle-aged men and women who shared outdoor adventures in the mid-1970s as young teens and pre-teens. Sweet, manic Gordon, known as Go-Go, was the youngest of the three Halloran brothers. It’s his sudden death at book’s beginning that reunites the remaining quartet, all of whom are marked by a tragic summer incident they’ve kept secret for more than 30 years. Now journalist Gwen wonders if it’s time to come clean, not realizing that she knows only part of the story, and that the kids’ aging parents also have a claim to the past.

Lippman moves nimbly from one character’s perspective to another, shuttling between past and present as the chickens come home to roost, so to speak. The chapters told in the collective plural are especially effective and had me recalling my own free-range suburban childhood, when stranger-danger was relatively unknown.

A decade later, things had changed dramatically, evidenced by Megan Abbott’s haunting The End of Everything, which pivots on Lizzie Hood’s 13th summer, when her best friend Evie vanished. Lizzie was there. “I saw her, that hank of dark hair, sports socks tugged high over knees. I saw her. Evie was there, and then Evie was gone.”

Because Lizzie remembers a lurking car and maybe who was driving it, she becomes the center of attention, basking in the glow of Evie’s warm, laughing father. She’s always envied Mr. Verver’s close relationship with his daughters, especially pretty, older Dusty, who wears frothy pastel dresses on her dates and comes home to dance in the dawn. Now it’s Lizzie’s turn to be the wanted, needed one. She misses Evie, worships Dusty, adores Mr. Verver. Her heart is sick, her dreams confused. Where is Evie?

“We’re no longer two summer-brown kids with tangles of hair and jutting kid teeth. I don’t know when it happened, but it did. Lately, things have been hovering in her face, and I couldn’t fathom it. I had things too, new things twisting under my skin, but I didn’t know what they were. It felt like she knew her own zig-zagging heart, and I was just killing time.”

Open Book: I borrowed Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility (Viking) from the library, read a review copy of Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing (Morrow), and bought a hardcover of Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything (Little, Brown). Next on my list is The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison (Washington Square Press), a galley I’ve been saving for next week’s vacation and which Mom just finished. Her endorsement — “You’re going to like this. It’s a different World War II story” — makes me eager to start this rite-of-passage tale. Young London evacuee Anna Sands finds herself on a Yorkshire estate-turned-school run by a childless couple whose marriage is unraveling.  Ah, summer reading. I am so still there.

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The headline writer in me wanted to call this post “Catch and release,” but I realized I was diminishing the subject just to get your attention. “The one who got away” doesn’t really work either because Laura Lippman’s new novel is not just about a woman who survived a serial killer’s abduction as a teenager.  It’s also the story of Elizabeth Lerner (then), Eliza Benedict (as she’s now known), her family, her abductor, his advocate, the mother of a girl who didn’t get away. It’s about how we all shape our memories, and how we are shaped by them. I’d Know You Anywhere is its perfect title.

Lippman, too, is pitch-perfect. She has honed her storytelling skills with her long-runnning Tess Monaghan series and with a handful of stand-alone tales of psychological suspense, including the superior What the Dead Know. This new book is right up there with that 2007 novel as she again explores questions of truth and identity through the prism of the perceived past.

“I’d know you anywhere.” That seemingly innocent, even cheery phrase takes on creepy, possibly menacing overtones when it appears in a letter to Eliza from Walter Bowman, who abducted her the summer she was 15 and held her hostage for almost six weeks. Walter has been on Virginia’s death row for the last 22 years for the rape and murder of another teenage girl, Holly Tackett, his final victim.

That Walter wants to talk to her before his impending execution turns Eliza’s carefully ordered suburban life upside down. Of course, her husband Peter knows about her past — she refuses to sleep with the windows open — but her own touchy teenage daughter Iso and sweet-natured son Albie don’t know. Eliza would like to keep it that way. But she’s afraid if she ignores Walter, he, or his odd advocate and go-between, Barbara, will keep up the pressure, perhaps bring in the media. Walter hints that he’s still witholding information about other girls he killed. Eliza is being forced back into “Elizabethland.”

Once Eliza cautiously responds to Walter’s overtures, the pace picks up as Lippman fluidly moves between past and present, and the perspectives of  the main characters — Eliza, still wondering why Walter let her live; Walter, whose years in prison have given him time to think; Barbara, who believes Walter’s real agenda  meshes with hers; Trudy Tackett, whose grief for her dead daughter occupies her every waking moment and who blames Eliza for Holly’s abduction; and fact crime author Jared Garrett, who has always been skeptical about Eliza’s testimony and victimhood.

All are convincing because they are so sure of their own motives and narratives. What Eliza fears most is that “her past would become present, truth and lie would mingle, and she would spend the rest of her life explaining herself.” Her older sister Vonnie already is reminding her of some truths of their shared girlhood she has forgotten, or chosen to forget. How reactive she still is, how willing to relinquish control. And Eliza does remember how it was with Walter:

 “She dreamed of rescue, hoped for it, prayed, but she believed it would have to be something that happened to her, not because of her.”

Lippman writes in an author’s note that this book, like others she has written, was inspired by a true crime, but not one she is going to detail and turn into a guessing game. “The bottom line is that there once was a man who raped and killed his victims, with one exception, and that man was put to death for his crimes.” Lippman started thinking one day about the exception, “the sole living victim.” 

I’m pretty sure she then asked herself, “What if?” That’s what novelists do. Inspiration leads to imagination, the search for the truth in fiction, the mystery of memory.

Open Book: I knew Laura Lippman from her books and mutual friends before we met some years ago. We keep in touch these days mostly through Facebook. Her publisher sent me an uncorrected galley of I’d Know You Anywhere (William Morrow/HarperCollins) earlier this summer. I’ve read it twice now, and in between, I reread What the Dead Know.

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