After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

Reviewed by Alex

after im goneIn 1976, Felix Brewer, unable to face the prospect of fifteen years in jail for illegal gambling offences, arranges to skip bail and cross the US border into Canada.  He leaves behind him, a wife, Bambi, and three daughters, Linda, Rachel and Michelle.  He also leaves a mistress, Julie Saxony, aka Juliet Romeo, a dancer in one of his clubs.  Julie has, or thinks she has, the edge over Felix’s family because she is in on the escape and she remains convinced that at some point her lover will send for her to join him.  Consequently, when she disappears, ten years later, there are many who assume that that is precisely what has happened.  It is only with the discovery of her badly decomposed body, a further fifteen years on, that it becomes apparent that she was killed on, or very close to the day she vanished.

With little or no evidence to go on, the murder is eventually consigned to the unsolved files, where, eleven years later, it catches the attention of ‘Sandy’ Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective now working cold cases.  With all the main players, minus the ever illusive Felix, still living in the Baltimore area, Sandy sets out to discover the truth behind what happened to Julie and in doing so reveals a tangle of relationships that serve to both bind and tear apart the principle actors in the still on-going story.

Laura Lippman is best known for her series of crime stories featuring Tess Monaghan, a reporter turned private detective.  However, in this standalone piece she has created something that is much more than simply a crime novel.  After I’m Gone explores the inner workings of a family devastated by the disappearance of a beloved husband and father and the consequences for each of the five women in his life as they try to go forward from that day in 1976 and (re)-build new lives and relationships in the light of his betrayal.

In many respects, Julie appears to have come best out of the situation.  Felix has left her the lease to a small business which she not only grows but, through a series of canny transactions, expands into larger and more profitable enterprises.  Her relationship with a man who believed in her allows her to develop as an individual and make the best of herself, even if that is so that when he does send for her she can be a partner Felix will be proud of.

Bambi and her daughters find themselves in a more difficult situation.  It seems that Felix has left them completely unprovided for and making ends meet at the same time as keeping up appearances becomes a never-ending task.  Lippman interweaves episodes from the 2012 investigation with the developing story of the Brewer family from Bambi and Felix’s first meeting through to the point when an arrest is finally made for Julie’s murder, and we watch as each of the Brewer daughters reacts in a different way to the experience of losing their father and their position in society.  Most especially, we watch them as they stumble their way into relationships which, for good or ill, are reactions against their father’s defection.  Linda, the eldest, marries a dull but ‘safe’ man, completely dependable and totally characterless.  Rachel opts for a man who could in some ways be her father’s double.  Michelle, only three when Felix leaves, seems reluctant to enter into any permanent relationship and bounces from one dangerous liaison to another.

As the two strands, that of the investigation and that of the family struggle, come together, it gradually become apparent that Lippman has a further focus of interest, namely the extent to which we can rely on the veracity of the evidence provided by witnesses involved in any crime.  It isn’t the deliberate act of lying with which she is concerned but rather the tricks that memory plays on us.  Sandy discovers that ‘the things [he] thought he remembered best were the things he was getting wrong’ while Michelle frets that she ‘barely remembered her father and worried sometimes that the memories she did have weren’t even hers, just stories planted by her mother and sisters.’ And then there is the question of revisionism, as the bare fact that Felix has left all these women to sink or swim while he saves his own neck becomes submerged beneath the stories that they tell about the man in order not to have to face up to the truth of what he has done and how he has treated them.  Self-respect demands they really believe that he was a better, more considerate person than the reader knows to be the case and even when forced to face up to reality they find a way of building any unpalatable truths into the story they have been constructing.

So, all in all, a novel that is far more than a simple whodunit, although we do eventually discover the truth about what happened to Julie Saxony.  After I’ve Gone was a very satisfying read and one that will certainly send me off to explore Lippman’s back catalogue.  If I have one quibble it is that the book is very centred in its location and as a UK reader I found that I really had to work hard in the first few chapters.  The nature of the way in which the story is structured means that it is necessary to piece the background together from the bits of evidence Lippman provides.  She shows rather than tells.  And, while I very much like that style of writing, when you also have to keep turning to Wikipedia to understand cultural references that an American reader would take for granted those first fifty pages definitely demand full concentration.  Other than that, this is a book I can heartily recommend.

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Alex blogs at Thinking in Fragments.

Laura Lippman,  After I’ve Gone (Faber and Faber: London, 2014). 978-0-571-29966-9, 334pp., hardback.

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