Book #5 for 2012: I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman
When I came to the back matter at the end of I’d Know You Anywhere, I found myself surprised in several different ways. It turns out that Laura Lippman, the book’s author, is a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and author of quite a few previous novels, many of them based, however loosely, on true crimes. This is not only the biography of a rather ordinary-sounding mystery novelist, but — and I’m sure this betrays some deep prejudice of mine — someone who is a bit of a hack mystery novelist, someone who dashes off clichéd suspense fiction in the flat, lifeless prose so typical of the bestselling novels one finds on the paperback bookshelf in the supermarket, next to magazines showcasing the scandalous lives of reality TV show stars. So let’s just say that I’m glad this back matter was precisely that: back matter. If it had been front matter and had come before the novel itself, I doubt that I’d ever have bothered to read what followed.
Because I would have been completely wrong about Lippman. She isn’t a hack; she isn’t even really a mystery writer, at least not in this particular novel (though she takes a humorous jab at such hack “true crime” writers by casting one as a minor character in one of the book’s later chapters). Lippman’s tone is literary without being self conscious about it, the kind of prose that I love because it holds my attention without ever making me feel as though my attention is either being taken advantage of or flattered for its superlative taste. Lippman writes with intelligence that never spills over into pretentiousness. And while I can’t say that I’d Know You Anywhere is likely to be the best novel that I’ll read this year, it’s certainly the best I’ve read so far and I’d happily read any of the other dozen or so Lippman novels that are listed in that back matter.
I’d Know You Anywhere is about a crime (one that Lippman says afterwards is based on a real crime though just in minor ways) but the novel doesn’t so much focus on the crime itself as on the people involved in the crime and how, despite the crime’s inevitable effects on their lives, they never manage to be anything remotely like the people you’d expect them to be. The specific story being told is about a 15-year-old girl who is kidnapped and held prisoner for 39 days by a young man who is afraid she has witnessed him murdering another teenage girl. The specific reason for that particular murder is left vague — deliberately, I think — but the young man has no intention of also murdering the girl he kidnaps. In fact, he seems to like her. He simply keeps her with him, driving around Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia (through many of the areas where I lived before I moved to California, so the book’s locales are hauntingly familiar to me). And then he lets her go.
Though it is not a mystery novel, it does have a mystery: Why does he let this girl get away and not the other girls he’s killed? (There turn out to be several other victims.) I can tell you this without it being spoilerish because it’s part of the novel’s set up, not its resolution. The story is told long after the fact, largely from the viewpoint of the 40-ish woman that the 15-year-old kidnap victim has grown up to be, after she’s contacted by her kidnapper shortly before he’s to be executed; having exhausted all his legal appeals, he wants a last chance to talk to her. He won’t say why, but he insists on the opportunity to see her and the woman eventually gives in.
It’s to Lippman’s credit that this isn’t a conventional suspense novel; she dwells very little on the possibility of any physical threat to the woman or her family, which now includes a rebellious daughter, a doting son, a loving husband and a large dog. Rather, she concentrates on the psychological aspects of the story: How was the now-adult 15-year-old changed by her kidnapping? Why did she stay with her kidnapper for 39 days when she had ample opportunity to escape? What was her complicity, if any, in the murder of his final victim, who was killed two days before the kidnapper released her?
I’d Know You Anywhere is a novel that is extraordinary precisely it seems not to be extraordinary. In fact I suspect that it’s representative of what Lippman has been writing during the more than two decades that she’s been a novelist. What surprises me is that she’s been turning out fine prose like this so quietly in a genre — the crime novel — that I’ve generally kept my eye on, if only with mild interest, and that I wasn’t even aware of her. I strongly recommend I’d Know You Anywhere if you like crime fiction and have grown tired of the clichés of the genre. I doubt that I’ll wait very long before seeing if Lippman’s other books are as good as this one.