This post kicks off a new series which will look at stand alone novels by mystery writers who are better known for their big time franchise characters. First up, we look at I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman.
For most people, Laura Lippman is best known as the author of a series of novels featuring reporter-turned-private investigator Tess Monaghan. The Monaghan books make up one of the best mystery serials of the last two decades—quick and fun enough to devour on a beach, but meaty enough to keep you interested in the character over the course of several novels. To extend the food metaphor a bit more, the trick of any series (and this is as true of mysteries as it is of science fiction or westerns) is to give readers what they expect while finding new ways to spice up the recipe. Lippman knows how to cook. In fact, given the success of the Monaghan books and the armload of awards they’ve won (including the Edgar and the Shamus), it’s fair to say that Lippman is one of the best cooks in the business.
Any series novel has built-in constraints, though. Most obviously, the writer is saddled with one central character. Even if the writer loves complicating the character, it’s still the same character. The other main obstacle is that series characters—even if they are complex and ever-changing—tend to be heroes of one kind or another.
Lippman, however, is a writer who has always had an interest in the anti-heroic. While her Monaghan novels fit neatly with the tradition of popular PI lit, her work outside of Tess’s world tends to take on a much darker hue. Take 2010’s I’d Know You Anywhere. It tells the story of a stay-at-home suburban mom named Eliza Benedict. She’s happily married with a couple of kids, but one day she receives a letter from a death row inmate named Walter Bowman. In 1985, when Eliza was just a teenager, we learn, Bowman kidnapped her and held her for six weeks. Bowman was a serial killer who’d already claimed several victims. Why did he let Eliza live? What really happened back there in the past? And what does he want from her now? Forgiveness? Or is it something else?
While it has its mysteries, I’d Know You Anywhere is more noir novel than mystery novel. What makes it noir is the way Lippman refuses to let the characters fall into simple paradigms of good and evil. Bowman is a terrifying character—as strategically clever as he is morally obtuse—but he feels every bit like a real person. Which, of course, only make him scarier. Eliza, on the other hand, is an even more complex character than her captor. Though she’s victimized, she’s never just a victim—and that’s another way of saying that even when Lippman goes into the past, to those dark days on the run with Walter, she never looses sight of Eliza’s agency. Even when she’s being passive, locked into a survival mode that keeps her subservient to this dangerous man while hoping to be rescued, there is movement underneath. She’s a thoroughly compelling character because she’s always thinking, feeling, reacting. She does what she has to do in order to survive, and ultimately, what haunts Eliza are the consequences of her own actions. And isn’t that always the case? We can only attach so much meaning to the things that happen to us. What we’re really stuck with is what we’ve done.
Eliza’s made a life for herself as a wife and mother, and the domestic scenes of Eliza’s family—especially her relationship to her daughter Iso and son Albie—have their own weight, their own way of adding to the suspense:
She tried to tell herself that Iso’s adaptability would keep her safe in this world, yet she worried far more about calculating Iso than she did about trusting Albie. Cynics fooled themselves into thinking they had sussed out the worst-case scenarios and were invariably surprised by how life trumped them. Dreamers were often disappointed—but seldom in themselves.
Life’s deadly unpredictability, its random injustices, is one of the main themes of book. Eliza’s experience has taught her one thing:
There was no protection, no quota system when it came to luck. It was like that moment in math when a child learns that the odds of heads or tails is always one-in-two, no matter how many times one has flipped the coin and gotten heads. Every flip, the odds are the same. Every day, you could be unlucky all over again.
I’d Know You Anywhere is beautifully wrought and ingeniously plotted. It’s also an excellent example of how psychological suspense can work effectively without grisly depictions of violence. Despite being about a serial killer, despite being about a young girl who is held captive by a rapist and murder, the book isn’t violent. The horrors all take place off stage.
Now, I’m not one to praise a book (or a movie or a show) based on what it lacks. I don’t think there’s any innate virtue to any particular approach to writing a suspense novel. I am, in short, for whatever works. As the novelist Hilary Davidson pointed out in “A Genre's Woman Problem,” a recent article in Mystery Scene, “a number of crime fiction authors—many of whom are women—appear to be in a competition to hack female characters to pieces in the most vicious ways possible.” Lippman, however, isn’t interested in recounting the details of rape and murder; she’s interested in the way human beings live in the aftermath of these things, the demons they face, and the ways they find to survive. I’d Know You Anywhere is a page-turner—I quite literally stayed up all night reading it—but you’re not turning these pages because you want to see someone get hurt. You want to see what they’re going to do and say. People, as Laura Lippman well understands, are the biggest mystery of all.
Jake Hinkson is the author of several novels, including the newly-released The Big Ugly.