Book review: After I’m Gone By Laura Lippman


Doug Johnstone
Friday 18 April 2014 15:30 BST

Laura Lippman is at the forefront of a group of American female writers who are dragging the crime novel into new and intriguing territories in the 21st century. This is the author’s 20th novel in 18 years and that wealth of experience leads to a sureness of touch and confidence with narrative that are both utterly beguiling in this epic family drama.

The novel is set in Baltimore and spans more than 50 years in the lives of the Brewer family. The defining moment occurs at the start of the book, when the patriarch and criminal Felix Brewer absconds out of the country to avoid a jail term. After I’m Gone is the story of the five women he left behind – his wife, his mistress and his three daughters. Ten years after Felix’s disappearance, the mistress, Julie, similarly goes missing, and there is a presumption that she’s gone to join him. But when her body is discovered in 2001, an altogether more sinister chain of events is slowly revealed.

Looking into this case in the present day is Sandy Sanchez, a retired cop, and while his inquiry into Julie’s murder is the hook Lippman provides for the reader, really After I’m Gone is all about the women.

Felix’s wife, Bambi, is a terrific character. Forced into the matriarchal role, she is streetwise and tough, yet not without her problems. It’s to Lippman’s credit that she creates an equal amount of empathy for Julie, another beautifully rounded and morally complex character, a stripper who wants more out of life.

And then come the daughters – Linda, Rachel and the youngest Michelle, each missing their father in her own way, each compensating for that absence in the best way she knows how.

Throughout, Lippman’s prose is wonderfully fluid and rich without ever drawing attention to itself. There is an earthy poetry to her descriptions of Baltimore and its denizens, an impressive streetwise rhythm that slides along sublimely, really letting the story sneak under your skin.

The fact that the author combines that richly evoked world with the momentum and drive of a murder mystery so well is a testament to her preternatural skill as a writer. As Sandy’s investigation into Julie’s death reaches a climax, the reader is desperate to find out what really happened, having emotionally invested so much in Lippman’s amazing cast of strong, flawed, real women. A fantastic piece of work from a highly talented writer.

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