Book review: After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman

Prize-winning US author Laura Lippman is back on a familiar beat in Baltimore… but this time without her long-serving, gutsy private investigator Tess Monaghan pulling the strings.

After I'm gone
After I'm gone

That’s not to say we don’t get to meet up with crime series star Tess – she does make a tantalising cameo appearance – but After I’m Gone is another of Lippman’s classic standalone novels, a murder mystery with a history, a taut tale that looks inwards as much as outwards.

Harnessing her impressive storytelling talent and keen eye for rich character creation, she gives us not just a whodunit but a fascinating psychological exploration of what happened before, what happened afterwards and how crime and its aftermath impacts on family.

Across 53 years and through the eyes of several witnesses, we watch how one shady dealer’s disappearance echoes down the decades and through the lives of the five women closest to him – his wife, his three daughters and his mistress.

In her Author’s Note, Lippman reveals that she loosely based her story on a real-life fraud scandal of the 1970s but it wasn’t the case itself that interested her but the idea of those left in its wake. ‘What is a wife without a husband, daughters without a father, a mistress without a lover?’ she asks.

When Felix Brewer meets nineteen-year-old Bernadette ‘Bambi’ Gottschalk at a Valentine’s Dance in 1959, he charms her with wild promises, some of which he actually keeps. Thanks to his lucrative if not always legal businesses, she and their three little girls – Linda, Rachel and Michelle – live in luxury.

But in 1976, Bambi’s world implodes when Felix, newly convicted and facing prison, mysteriously vanishes. From now on, the family must endure a ‘frozen life, like something out of a fairy tale, where everyone was suspended, waiting, waiting, waiting for the man who never came.’

Although Bambi has no idea where her husband or his money went, she suspects that one woman does… his devoted stripper girlfriend Julie Saxony.

When Julie herself disappears ten years to the day that Felix left without a trace, everyone assumes she has finally left to join up again with her former lover.

Fast forward to 2012, 26 years after Julie went missing, and her remains are found in a secluded wooded park. Enter Roberto ‘Sandy’ Sanchez, a retired Baltimore detective who is working cold cases for some extra cash and is investigating her murder.

Sanchez, a man carrying his own personal baggage, discovers a tangled web of bitterness, jealously, resentment and greed stretching over three decades and three generations, and connecting five very different women.

As the past unravels and the explosive truth emerges, at the centre of every woman’s story is Felix Brewer, the man who, though long gone, has never been forgotten...

A compelling character-driven plot, with a cracking murder mystery at its heart and a scintillating sting in its tail, is the key to what is essentially an introspective and intriguing mixed genre novel.

Within this powerful twisting, turning story, you’ll find high drama and high emotion, truth and lies, desertion and discovery and suspicion and sacrifice as Lippman sets out to surprise and entertain us… but also to make us think.

(Faber, hardback, £12.99)