Category Archives: Lippman Laura

Life Sentences: Laura Lippman

Cassandra Fallows, soon to be 50 years-old, has two immensely popular, best-selling memoirs under her belt. The first, “My Father’s Daughter,” reveals her childhood, youth, and ends with the failure of her first marriage. The second book, “The Eternal Wife” tells how Cassandra’s second marriage went down the toilet, flushed with innumerable extramarital affairs. So fast forward to Cassandra’s third book: this one is fiction and it’s not selling well. Everyone connected with Cassandra urges her to return to non-fiction as that seems to be her forte.

Life sentences

Cassandra happens to catch a news story which refers to a crime that occurred decades before involving Calliope Jenkins, Cassandra’s former classmate, an afro-american woman whose baby disappeared. Since Calliope’s first child was removed by Child Protective Services previously, the baby’s disappearance, along with Calliope’s history of drug use, takes on sinister overtones. Calliope refused to talk, and the baby was never found. Calliope served 7 years in prison and was subsequently released. Cassandra’s next book begins to form in her head–not exactly “true crime” as she explains:

I don’t know what I’m writing, but there’s clearly a story there. She was one of us once. Not part of our gang, but a classmate. I want to figure out how the path deviates, how we end up in middle age, safe and snug, and she flounders so horribly.

So New York based Cassandra returns to her old stomping grounds, Baltimore, to uncover “the accidents of fate, the choices and temptations we faced.” Soon Cassandra is contacting former classmates: Donna, Tisha and Fatima. To complicate matters Donna is now married to Tisha’s brother who was Calliope’s one-time lawyer. Cassandra also tries to talk to Calliope’s first lawyer, the flinty Gloria, and Teena, the detective who worked on Calliope’s case. People connected with the case were forever tainted by it and the buzz is:

That case, it’s like a curse, isn’t it? Like something you’d see in an old movie.

Memory, truth and perception lie at the heart of this novel. I’ve read several Lippman titles, and Life Sentences is the most impressive. Cassandra has ‘bared all’ in her memoirs, but those memoirs are written according to her perceptions. She may have written ‘her story,’ but when she includes other people as bit players, some are offended. According to Cassandra’s childhood friend, Tisha, Cassandra “thought everything was about her. She’s incapable of telling a story where she’s not at the center.”

While on one level, Life Sentences is about what happened to Calliope Jenkins’ baby, it’s really about the stories we tell–the stories we tell ourselves, our interpretations of events. Those stories can remain safely in our heads, but when we air them to other people, especially other people who may ‘appear’ in those stories, the ‘truth’ slides into parallel, yet deviating, narratives. At one point, for example Cassandra finds herself questioning whether or not a publisher truly doesn’t remember meeting her (and turning down her first book) or whether he’s just trying to save face.

Early in the book, a woman attends one of Cassandra’s readings and asks why she gets to tell a story involving real people, and that is yet another issue that floats to the surface of this multi-layered novel: why should Cassandra tell Calliope’s story? How can she possibly do that? There are many times when Cassandra tries to pull Calliope from the fog of her childhood memories, and it’s clear that she did not know Calliope as other than a figure in the same room. Cassandra may have bared her own life to public exposure, but even then it’s through a lens of her construction. Does she have the moral right to co-opt Calliope’s story?

A middle-aged, twice divorced white Cassandra returning to her old stomping grounds and meeting her former Afro-American friends makes for fascinating reading. While Cassandra set out to tell Calliope’s story–whatever that may be–she runs headlong into what happened to several other women who were connected to Calliope’s case.

The solution to the mystery was the least satisfactory part of this otherwise interesting, highly readable book. The novel is populated with memorable characters including Calliope’s first lawyer, “famously, riotously deliberately seedy,” Gloria, former detective Teena, “if this was what pretty could become, what age could take away from you,” now permanently damaged physically and mentally who still considers the Calliope Jenkins case her ‘bête noire,’ and Cassandra’s philandering father, her “psychic tar pit,” a man who shapes his infidelities into a palatable narrative and massive love story.

Ignore the cover. It does the book no favours.

(The book includes a note from the author in which she explains that the Calliope Jenkins case is loosely based on a real crime.)

TBR stack.

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Sunburn: Laura Lippman

“If only you knew what it means to walk away from something, what it takes.”

Laura Lippman’s standalone novel, Sunburn begins in 1995 when two strangers, Adam and Polly, meet in a bar in Belleville, a small town in Delaware. Their meeting seems accidental and innocent enough, but is it? After dumping her husband and child and hitching a ride, Polly finds herself in this dead-end town, while Adam claims to be passing through. He is attracted to this prickly redhead, and she doesn’t seem to mind the attention. Adam, who claims he has a few months to kill before moving on, decides to stay in Belleville and begins working in the same bar as Polly.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that. 

As the plot unfolds, it’s apparent that Adam and Polly are lying about who they really are and about their intentions. …

And why is she here? Does her husband know where she is? Does the husband know anything? Why did she leave him? And her little girl, how does that work? Feral his client says of her. No capacity for genuine emotion. She’s out for herself, always.

“Whatever you do,” his client says, “don’t turn your back on her.” Then he chuckles in an odd way. “Even face-to-face, you might not be safe with that one.”

Although the two central characters are introduced immediately, and we know their innermost thoughts, the controlled narrative keeps us at a distance, parceling out slivers of information at a time. Just as we come to know the real reason for Adam’s interest in Polly, we also begin to understand exactly what Polly is running from.

sunburn

And yet, even though we discover elements to Polly’s past that might create some sympathy… there’s a lot about Polly that sends shivers down the spine. She’s cold, hard, and calculating and uses men to get what she wants.

The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.

There’s a murder in Polly’s past and very possibly another looming in her future. In creating Polly who is clearly fashioned as a noir femme fatale (think Phyllis Dietrichson), Lippman takes chances, and yet she succeeds admirably in her noir archetype creations. Polly is not a woman who’s easy to warm to–although Adam certainly charges in–despite many warnings. With Polly as the reptilian, intriguing femme fatale, that leaves Adam as the gullible male, well one of them, at least.

You have to be willing to leave some doors closed, to focus on the task at hand. Some people are like rabbit holes and you can fall a long, long way down if you go too far.

Lippman has written a range of crime fiction, and Sunburn is a far darker read than the Tess Monaghan novels.

Review copy

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The Girl in a Green Raincoat by Laura Lippman

“She preferred dumpster diving in corporate espionage cases over divorce cases. The slime from the dumpster came off in the shower.”

I’ve wanted to try a Laura Lippman novel for some time, so when The Girl in The Green Raincoat fell my way, I grabbed the chance to read it. It’s one episode in the life of Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan, and this is the 11th novel in the series. It didn’t seem to matter much that I was jumping into the middle of Tess’s life, and at this point in her career, she’s a high risk pregnancy at age 35 and stymied on forced bedrest.

Bored to tears, one Sunday, Tess finds herself staring out of the window at dogwalkers lucky enough to walk their dogs (her own dogs, Esskay and Miata, are elsewhere in the house). Her attention is drawn continually to a young woman in a green raincoat, and why is she so noteworthy?  Her dog, an Italian greyhound, sports a matching raincoat. Well if you see a woman and a dog wearing matching raincoats, it’s going to make an impression:

Her eye was drawn to a miniature version of Esskay, a prancing Greyhound, a true gray one, whereas Esskay was black with a patch of white at her breast. The little dog wore a green jacket belted around its middle and moved with the cocky self-confidence of someone used to being noticed. As did its human companion, in a tightly cinched celery-green raincoat that was a twin to the greyhound’s. Hard to tell the woman’s age at this distance, but Tess could make out sleek blond hair, a wasp-waisted figure. She was the kind of pretty woman who would be called a girl into her forties. She ignored the other dog owners, cradling what appeared to be a cell phone against her ear.

But after watching the dog owner and her dog for several days in a row, on Friday the woman isn’t there, but that night Tess sees the Italian Greyhound running around the park with a celery-green leash dangling from his collar.

Tess is convinced it’s a case of foul play, and so from her bed, she organises an investigation of the woman’s disappearance. It doesn’t take too much digging to discover that the missing woman is Carol Epstein, and that her husband, Don,  is a modern-day Bluebeard. The women in his life haven’t fared well, and it doesn’t look good for his latest wife, Carol either. Epstein, who owns a chain of check-cashing outlets, is a real piece of work, and he claims that his wife isn’t missing at all–she’s just away on business.  

A lot of the book’s fun comes from the frequent allusion to film scattered throughout the book. The basic plot is lifted right out of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, of course, and while this is noted early in the book, it’s also a reason why people don’t listen to Tess’s concerns at first. But as the dirt from Don’s past comes to light, Tess gets support for her theory that Carol Epstein met foul play. She rallies her staff and recruits her friend Whitney to go undercover to date this deadly Casanova:

Don Epstein dressed atrociously, in a style Whitney thought of a Bad Florida. Bright patterned shirts worn untucked, slip-on loafers in sherberty colors. And the jewelry! Epstein wore two large rings, not counting his wedding ring, an ID bracelet, and occasionally a gold chain around his neck.

Originally serialised in New York Times Magazine, The Girl in  the Green Raincoat is a speedy, humorous, addictive read. My impression about Lippman books (before actually reading one) is that they are something along the lines of Kate Atkinson, and after reading this novel, I no longer see the comparison. Since this is my first Lippman novel, I can’t judge the rest, but I can say that The Girl in the Green Raincoat has more in common with a cozy than hard or even soft-boiled crime. Any series detective novel must, by necessity, spend a portion of the book on the life of its protagonist since over time readers develop a relationship of sorts with that fictional character; we are interested not only in the crime but in the life and personal problems of the series detective or PI (Andrea Camilleri’s creation Inspector Montalbano’s long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Henning Mankell’s Wallender and his father with Alzheimer’s). Here it seems about 50-50 crime and Tess’s personal life–although the end of the book (a quick read at 170 pages) tilts 100% towards Tess’s life & pregnancy. Given the emphasis on the dilemma of career vs family, child-rearing vs crime investigation, The Girl in the Green Raincoat will probably have more appeal for female readers.

My copy of The Girl in the Green Raincoat came courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and was read on my Kindle.

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