America’s fascination with its own criminal element has a long and storied history. From train robbers to gangsters to small-time hustlers, we can’t seem to get enough. Show us the seedy deals, the back-room negotiating, the narrow escapes. Is there no honor among thieves, or is there only honor among thieves?
What Laura Lippman’s new novel, “After I’m Gone,” concerns, however, is the lives left behind after a criminal makes his getaway. There’s no glamorous open road with femme fatales and new scores. Instead, bills pile up, homes grow desperately in need of repair, children require care, and law enforcement and the press cling to suspicions that those left behind know something about where the con man of the title has fled.
In this case, that’s the charming but cowardly Felix Brewer. He runs a gambling operation in Baltimore until he gets caught, and then decides to bolt one day in 1976 rather than face prison.
This is established in the first chapter. What happens next amounts to a series of vignettes that jump forward through time over several decades featuring his wife, three daughters, and mistress, as well as various other women tangentially connected to him.
These glances at the damage wreaked by Felix’s careless abandonment alternate with chapters that take place from March through December 2012 and feature Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez, a retired homicide detective now working a backlog of cases as a consultant.
Sandy, regrettably, has stepped in from an altogether more traditional book, one with “hard-boiled” on the book jacket. He is working on a cold case, the disappearance and murder of Brewer’s mistress, the erstwhile Julie Saxony, whose body was discovered long after Felix’s disappearance.
The chapters where he attempts to divine what happened to Julie lack the life and immediacy of the sections about the Brewer women, whose history and secrets Sandy must explore.
The Brewer women are a fascinating, tough, smart group, forced to make the best of it without much of a safety net. Bambi, Felix’s bombshell wife, could have done better, but fell for his charm and confidence as a teenager, then spent the rest of her life paying for it. She’s stoic and determined, and it becomes especially impressive that Lippman manages to make Julie nearly as sympathetic as Bambi. Julie loves Felix, too, and she makes some bad decisions because of it, but she’s never pitiable.
Felix’s daughters are no less affected. The older two appear determined to avoid the situation their mother found herself in, and the youngest, who barely remembers Felix, takes the hardest view of all, that men are merely there to be used and then dropped.
Though it’s Felix’s disappearance that sets events in motion, and his actions tie the women together, it’s the mystery of Julie that ultimately takes center stage.
Julie disappears a decade after Felix, and while it’s initially assumed that she joined him in hiding (by everyone except the Brewer women, who refuse to believe he’d choose her), the discovery of her body some 15 years later complicates matters.
It’s this long-neglected case that ends up in Sandy’s hands, but his efforts to resolve the crime are less compelling than they probably should be. Spend enough time with the family, and you’ll have your own suspicions about whodunit, and you’re likely to be right, though Lippman throws in some late-breaking curveballs.
This uneven balance galls a bit, even as the larger story satisfies. It seems an added unfairness that these dynamic women ultimately get less space to tell their story than another man, albeit one more honorable than Felix.
Even so, spreading those chapters across multiple characters and decades suits Lippman’s broader point: Leaving is done in an instant, but those left behind have a tendency to build whole lives from and beyond that departure point.Lisa Weidenfeld, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.