Book Review: After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
Secrets, lies, and obsessive love lie at the heart of this new mystery novel by Laura Lippman. Felix Brewer, a wealthy but not quite legitimate businessman, flees the country in 1976 rather than face a prison sentence, leaving behind the wife he loves, three daughters, and a young, devoted mistress. When the mistress is reported missing in 1986, the natural assumption is that she’s finally gone to join Felix. But when her remains are discovered years later in a local park, it’s clear that Julie Saxony has been murdered. The investigation goes nowhere for 15 years, until retired detective Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez pulls the cold case file and starts to dig… and notices connections that had been missed the first time around.
The story starts with Felix’s escape, and then moves forward over time, through all the years since his disappearance, focusing not on Felix himself but on the shattered lives of those he left behind. He’d intended to provide for the family financially, but the money never surfaced, and his wife Bambi and her daughters live in the years since always on the verge of ruin. Meanwhile, Julie was given ownership of one of Felix’s businesses and expanded from there into a restaurant and B&B — so did she have the missing money? And would someone have killed to get hold of it?
We follow Sandy’s investigation into the meager pieces of evidence and the random witnesses who might have new light to shed on the past, while in alternating chapters, we learn what’s become of Bambi, her sad and troubled daughters, and their families as well. The clues start to pile up, and as Sandy remarks, the murderer in a cold case is usually someone whose name appears in the original investigation file. Nobody connected to the Brewer mystery has led a spotless life. Greed, callousness, disappointment, and bitterness all play a part. As close as Bambi and the girls are, each one is hiding secrets from the others, in misguided attempts to protect their loves ones from unpleasant truths or to avoid letting their mother down.
In a way, this book is quite sad. Bambi truly loved her husband and he adored her as well, but she spends most of her adulthood alone, scrounging to maintain the life she wanted for her daughters, and always suffering the indignities of her abandonment. The daughters have issues, to say the least: Trust issues, feeling like their father ruined their lives, the constant air of scandal surrounding the family, worry for their mother — and later, relationship problems, marital difficulties, and the pain of knowing that their father chose a life of exile rather than doing time and then resuming life amidst his family.
The mystery itself is clever and confounding. There are red herrings galore. At several points, I thought I had it all figured out… but mostly, I was dead wrong. (I will pat myself on the back and say that I did in fact pick the killer — but I got the circumstances and motivation completely wrong, so I suppose it was mostly a lucky guess!) The book covers quite a big chunk of time, dipping in and out of the family’s life over a span of 35 years, but it doesn’t feel like too much. Instead, we get samplings of what Bambi and the daughters go through at various points in their lives post-Felix, with glimpses of Julie as well, and it’s just enough to start connecting dots and figuring out which pieces fit together — and where and when the true secrets are hidden.
Sandy is a good investigator with a sorrowful backstory, and if I had any quibbles about this book, it’s that perhaps too much time is spent on Sandy’s history. It really has no bearing on the mystery itself, other than to humanize the law enforcement side of the story, and I could have done with less focus on him and more on the Brewer family, who truly fascinated me. I had the sense, based on the wrap-up, that the author intends to introduce Sandy into future mysteries involving her ongoing character Tess Monaghan. Since I’ve never read anything by this author before, this aspect didn’t matter to me, but I’m sure it will be exciting for fans of the Tess Monaghan series.
Overall, I found After I’m Gone terrific, suspenseful, and smart. I’m not usually a big fan of mystery or crime fiction, but this book had everything I need to really enjoy a good read: engaging characters, unusual plot twists, startling and unexpected scenarios, and some plain old great writing. I tore through this book as quickly as I could, and felt really irritated every time little things like sleep got in the way. If you like books that grab you and don’t let go, check out After I’m Gone!
Title: After I’m Gone
Author: Laura Lippman
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: February 11, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Source: Review copy courtesy of William Morrow and TLC Book Tours