Monday, February 17, 2014

After I'm Gone, by Laura Lippman

Felix Brewer's illegal gambling operation provides a good living for his family--wife Bambi and daughters Linda, Rachel, and Michelle. Then, when he is convicted of racketeering charges, he disappears, leaving his family and his mistress Julie behind. Julie, to whom he has signed over a coffee shop (his one legitimate business), does well financially. Bambi and her girls, to whom he has apparently left nothing, struggle financially. Many in Bambi's circle assume that either Felix abandoned his family in every sense or Julie somehow stole the money intended for Bambi and her daughters. Then, ten years after Felix's disappearance, Julie disappears, too, sparking more rumors, this time that she has gone to be with Felix. Fifteen years later, Julie's body is found in a nearby park, but her murder is never solved. Fast forward to 2012--Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez, widower,  retired police officer, and failed restaurateur, is now a consultant to the Baltimore Police Department, working on cold cases. Based on a picture in the file, he chooses Julie's case to investigate.

Sandy's investigation provides the narrative glue for the story, which bounces back and forth in time, between 1959 (when Felix and Bambi, a Bryn Mawr dropout, met) and 2012. The narrator also changes, with Sandy and all the women left behind by Felix given their own voices. Through the chapters narrated by Bambi, Linda, Rachel, Michelle, and Julie, we see how they dealt with his disappearance--and continued dealing with it nearly 40 years later. While all three of the Brewer daughters struggle at some point in their growing up, they all manage to elicit the reader's sympathy. The two adult women once again illustrate how hard it is to understand sexual/romantic attraction--why does Bambi put up with Felix's infidelities before his disappearance (yes, I know it was a different era and women like her didn't have many options)? Why is Julie still waiting for Felix ten years later and why is she still fascinated with Bambi? These are larger mysteries to me than who killed Julie.

n fact, while I enjoyed following Sandy's investigation, the mystery seemed less central to the book than the examination of the Brewer family dynamics--the secrets they kept from each other, the sacrifices they made for each other. The family's friendship with Bert and Lorraine, Felix's old buddy/lawyer and his wife, is also fascinating, as Bambi and Lorraine work hard to maintain the friendship, even when changes in their economic status pose challenges (and they judge each others' tastes and behaviors).

The mystery was slightly marred by Lippman's red herrings that so obviously pointed to one or another suspect that you felt pretty confident that person would not end up being the murderer. Fans of the Tess Monaghan series will enjoy a brief appearance by Tess's husband Crow and her daughter Scout. I'm curious whether Sandy may become a recurring character--I'd definitely read another book featuring the character, but I hope we'll get a Tess book first!

All in all, an enjoyable read with more depth than your average mystery.

Favorite passage:
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. 

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