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Conflicting Histories

Laura Lippman mines fallible human memories in her latest mystery

By Wendy Ward | Posted 3/11/2009

Laura Lippman's fourth stand-alone mystery opens in a San Francisco bookstore on Valentine's Day after a slimly attended book appearance. Author Cassandra Fallows' first two books, both memoirs, succeeded in a healthy market for personal stories. Her tales of her loneliness as an only child, her father's betrayal of her mother, and her failed first marriage, followed by multiple love affairs and eventually a second husband, gained her a fleetingly loyal audience that left her without a fan base after she published a third book, a novel.

Lippman knows the bookstore reading, though she must be a stranger to an unsuccessful one these days. Her 2007 What the Dead Know was a New York Times bestseller, and she's won multiple awards for her many Tess Monaghan mysteries. Her stand-alones display her awesome skill at spinning an intriguing yarn without a steady main character. Then again, Baltimore has always been there in the background, though her love for the city never feels unconditional. She's never been afraid to show its underbelly; murder is her bread and butter, after all.

But the main mystery in Life Sentences--and there is more than one--isn't, for sure, a murder. Fallows' career may be dying: No one interested in her personal life wanted to delve into her imagination and buy her last book. She couldn't blame them--Fallows herself wasn't sure what her next writing endeavor would be, until the television news cycle referenced Baltimore and the decade-old case of Calliope Jenkins. Accused of killing her missing infant son, Jenkins plead the fifth and paid for her silence with seven years in prison. Turns out, Fallows went to the same school as Jenkins. The author now had her fourth book's subject matter and a way to write about her history afresh.

Lippman carefully builds a mystery out of the old story and how Fallows digs and asks questions and takes notes as though an investigator, although she's not--Fallows isn't even a reporter. Yes, Fallows is basically doing investigative reporting, but remember, her strength was found in memoir writing, which is not the same as journalism. And what a job Lippman does dovetailing previously published passages from Fallows' memoirs about her girlhood spent with Calliope and three other girls--now women she must realign with to get information--with Fallows' time with her now older parents and scenes from other character's perspectives. Teena Murphy tried to break Calliope down when she was a police investigator; now she works at Nordstrom and drinks box wine every night. Calliope's first lawyer Gloria Bustamante is unable and unwilling to help. And Fallows former friends Donna, Tisha, and Fatima each have their own lives and secrets to keep.

Of course, Baltimore--complete with it's own scarred racial history, neighborhood lines, good restaurants, and faulty social services--is the novel's other main character. Lippman writes what she knows, and she accurately describes the emotions stirred up by driving through streets changed after a long absence, the views of buildings and waterways seen from a train window heading north out of the city, Smalltimore's ability to lose people for years only to suddenly place them face to face over and over again once the dam of obscurity is broken. Life Sentences moves with the awareness that the lost never stays lost and the hidden is unable to hide in plain sight forever.

Fallows' search to discover who Calliope was--and is now after serving her time in jail--is to construct a book based on cause and effect. Calliope and the other four girls were this way and now they are who they are: author, housewife, graphic artist, pillar of a megachurch, and druggie mom who lost two children. But Fallows' former friends have read her memoirs and disagree with her version of history. Her divorced parents factor in her first two books, too, but it is Fallows who questions those memories.

A side story--one that relies on Baltimore's history--is the tale of how her father met the woman he would leave his wife and daughter for during the race riots of 1968. Fallows was always daddy's girl--her debut is titled My Father's Daughter--but did she give the tale too much weight, her mother not enough credit, her father too much? Life Sentences contains so many different personal histories that the story often cloverleafs around itself, and as the complicated story unravels, you never feel exactly sure what the truth is. And Lippman knows how to grab your attention while keeping you guessing.

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