A most satisfying mystery

Nicky Pellegrino savours an unhurried tale of abandonment, murder and loss.

Laura Lippman's novel probes the impact of a man's disappearance on five women left behind.
Laura Lippman's novel probes the impact of a man's disappearance on five women left behind.

Broadly, there are two kinds of crime novel: the high-octane thriller with loads of action, violence and gore, and the more nuanced, character-driven affair often involving a slow-moving detective carefully piecing together the clues.

Laura Lippman's latest book, After I'm Gone (Allen & Unwin) is firmly in the latter camp and it's my kind of crime fiction. The story spans more than 50 years and is concerned with love, loss and survival as much as it is with homicide.

Although far from pacey, the plot is elegantly engineered and each character is a fully fleshed-out person. We learn about their hopes and failures, their flaws and petty jealousies, what drives them. Lippman shows us the minutiae of their everyday lives and takes us inside their heads with an exhaustive attention to detail.

Our detective is Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez. He is retired but still working cold cases in Baltimore for extra cash.

Sandy has had a tough time. He's lost his wife to cancer, his only child is severely autistic, his attempt to open a Cuban restaurant has failed. This is not an upbeat fellow. Outside of work, he can go days without speaking to anyone.

When Sandy starts investigating the murder of stripper Julie Saxony he finds himself untangling a complex case involving a charismatic crook called Felix Brewer and the five women he left behind after disappearing mysteriously decades earlier.

Chief among the abandoned and heartbroken is his beautiful wife Bambi Brewer. Felix fulfilled the promise he made to her that some day they would be rich but he fled the threat of imprisonment without a word, leaving her penniless and struggling to bring up their three daughters alone. When Saxony, his mistress, also disappeared, it was assumed she had the money and was off to join him. Years later her body is discovered. But who killed her?

Armed with a file full of missing-person flyers, reports and photographs, the lugubrious Sandy backtracks over the mystery, chatting to everyone connected to Felix and his dead mistress.

As a whodunnit this is a winner - I didn't come close to guessing the identity of the killer. But the murder isn't the point of this novel.

As its title suggests it's really about the aftermath of a man's disappearance, about the ripples that continued to run through the lives of those he loved for years afterwards.

Lippman is best known for her Tess Monaghan series. She says this stand-alone piece of fiction was inspired by the real-life disappearance of Julius Salisbury, the head of a large gambling operation in Baltimore, who left behind a wife, three daughters and a mistress.

After I'm Gone is short on car chases and splatter but it's engrossing. The trickiest thing is it's not told chronologically. It lurches from decade to decade so unpredictably it can be disorientating.

- Herald on Sunday

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