After I’m Gone
- Laura Lippman
- William Morrow / Harper/Collins
- 352 pp
- Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark
- March 10, 2014
More than a murder mystery, this complex tale shows the impact of a Baltimore bookmaker’s disappearance on the lives of his wife, daughters, and mistress.
A Baltimore bookmaker is facing indictment when he suddenly skips town on the Fourth of July 1976. Felix Brewer leaves his wife, Bambi, with three daughters, none of his money, and no idea where he has gone. Bambi suspects that Felix’s latest girlfriend, stripper Julie Saxony, knows where he is, and ten years later Julie suddenly disappears, too. Everyone assumes she has gone to join Felix, but years later her remains are found in a public park. Who killed her, and why?
If Laura Lippman’s latest novel focused exclusively on those questions, then it would be fair to limit it to the genre of murder mystery. But After I’m Gone contains much more, as Lippman shows how Felix’s disappearance resonates through the lives of his wife, his daughters, his mistress, and his trusted friends. The murder intrigues a retired police officer more than 30 years later, and Lippman opens up the life of Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez as he copes with the loss of his beloved wife, and the heartbreaking severe autism of their institutionalized son. It is a tale of love and loyalty, and of many betrayals, both minute and momentous, and all of it carries a flavor of Baltimore.
The point of departure for the novel was the real-life disappearance of Julius Salsbury, who headed a large gambling operation in Baltimore. While Lippman’s story is fiction, she says in her author’s note that she was fascinated by the women left behind: the wife without her husband, the mistress without her lover, the daughters without a father. The daughters in After I’m Gone grow up in the city where everyone knows their story; indeed, when one of the daughters goes to college far away, she ends up transferring back to Goucher College in Baltimore, because it is just too upsetting for her to be in a place where people might/will find out and want to talk to her about it.
Bambi works hard to keep up appearances, refusing to sell the large house in the suburbs, partly because she doesn’t want to move down the social scale and partly because she hopes Felix will return to her. The intricate snobbery of Baltimore’s wealthy Jews further flavors this narrative; Lorraine, wife of the family’s good friend Bert, at first was worried about associating with Felix and Bambi: “Lorraine’s family were German Jews; her great-grandparents had lived on Eutaw Place when Eutaw was nice.” The three daughters, Linda, Rachel, and Michele, grow up healthy and get good educations. Linda and Rachel are kind, loyal, and hard-working, while Michele appears to care for no one but herself. In their marriages and family lives, they, too, deal with secrets and betrayals, with some surprising turns in their lives and attitudes.
The narrative covers more than 50 years, moving back and forth from 1959, when Felix meets Bambi after crashing a fraternity dance, through 2012, when Sandy Sanchez takes on the case, and into December 2013, when the question “whodunit?” is finally resolved. Sanchez’s experience in dealing with cold cases has taught him that “the name is always in the file,” that the murderer is always someone who figured in the police investigation. The difficulty in this case is not only the length of elapsed time, but the fact that the file is more than 800 pages long. Devotees of Lippman’s work may well figure that Sanchez is being introduced as a running character, since he meets detective Tess Monaghan, the sleuth in Lippman’s first series, and talks to her about a job. It is fascinating to see Sanchez work, but also to know that he has his demons; he feels he failed as a father and as a husband, but, he tells himself as he gets back to the murder investigation, this job he can do.
It is a complex and riveting tale, and Lippman has told it skillfully, picking the threads from the tangled skein cleanly, keeping an intriguing narrative driving forward toward a satisfying conclusion.
Susan Storer Clark is a frequent contributor to the Washington Independent Review of Books. She is a former radio and television journalist. Since retiring, she has completed one novel and is at work on a second. She and her husband, Rich, recently moved from the Washington, D.C., area to Seattle, where they are renovating an old farmhouse.