I enjoyed Laura Lippman's novel When She Was Good, which was a stand alone that some fans of her Tess Monaghan series did not care for. What I liked was the portrait she drew of a modern day suburban madam and a possible route that a woman takes to that particular destination.
What I have appreciated about Lippman's work is how fully she develops the women in her books. Sadly, that is not as common as one would expect, considering how many women are appearing in crime novels other than cozies. She does it again in When I'm Gone, with five different women, and how time, struggle and loss change them all.
After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman Published by William Morrow February 11th 2014 352 pages
"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.”
Lippman, Laura (2014-02-11). After I'm Gone: A Novel (p. 143). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
On July 4, 1976, Felix Brewer, rather than face trial on racketeering charges, disappeared with the help of his mistress, stripper Julie Saxony and her sister, who smuggled him out of Baltimore on the floor of a horse trailer. He left behind a wife and three daughters in addition to said mistress.
Exactly ten years later, his mistress Julie, who has by now, sold the coffee shop Brewer signed over to her, and is a successful and respected business owner, also disappears. Fifteen years after that, in 2001, her body is discovered. She had been shot through the head. Her murderer is never found and the case goes cold.
Enter Sandy Sanchez in 2012, a retired cop working cold cases for the Baltimore PD. A recent widower, he is still mourning the loss of his wife and adjusting to his new reality. Lippman provides enough backstory to suggest that he may become a character in a new series, or perhaps one in her Tess Monaghan series. He provides the minimalist structure for the murder investigation, but never stands out as a character in his own right.
Perhaps that is as it should be, because this book is about the women Felix Brewer left behind. Bambi Brewer, a beauty that a younger Felix swept off her feet in 1959, while crashing a school dance, is left to raise their three daughters. She had never worried about money, as Felix had provided very well for his family, even if the manner in which he did it involved strip joints and running a numbers racket. His was a "nighttime business," he told her.
Smart and determined, Bambi didn't last a semester at Bryn Mawr, realizing that her future lay with a husband and family. And she excelled as a wife and mother, at least until her husband disappeared. Felix left no explanation for Bambi who did not know if he was dead or alive. With no closure, and no resources, she was forced to go on living and raising the girls, Linda who was sixteen, Rachel, fourteen, and Michelle, only three years old when their father vanished.
With a very complex timeline, the story switches back and forth between the years as well as the points of view, allowing us to share with these women their growth and change. We see Julie, two years into her affair with Felix, studying Judaism and finally converting as a gift to him. And we watch his daughters grow up as their mother works hard to provide some sense of normalcy. And all the while, we wonder which one would kill another.
It is an intriguing read, with a very satisfying conclusion. Unlike most fictional characters, none of these five women is purely a heroine or a villain. And that fact alone may make it hard to select one to cheer for and identify with. Yet there is something admirably refreshing about women who are both good and bad, and who can be just as complicated as any male protagonist, or adversary.
More a character study than a pulse pounding mystery, the suspense is strongest towards the end of the book, when one surprise twist follows another to an unexpected, but totally fitting and perfect, ending.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.