Like James M. Cain, another Baltimore scribe who knew a thing or two about noir, Lippman knows the real heart of darkness lies not in over-the-top cartoons, exploding buildings, and slo-mo gross-outs, but in the stories we tell each other.
“People never changed,” muses retired homicide dick Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez at one point, “until they did.” It’s a telling remark, because in this swirling, carefully plotted thriller, it’s the assumptions we have of other people that provide the fuel for this particular bonfire of vanity and betrayal.
Sandy, an aging widower who works cold cases for extra cash, is looking into the 1986 murder of Julie, a stripper turned restaurateur and reputed mistress of Felix Brewer, an amiable and charming—if not exactly legit—businessman who, facing criminal charges and almost certainly jail time, took a powder ten years earlier.
But that’s not the whole story. With Lippman, there’s never just one story, but rather a string of overlapping and contradictory Olen Steinhauer stories. When Felix disappeared in 1976, without a word to anyone, he left behind not only Julie, but his young wife, Bernadette “Bambi” Gottschalk, and three young daughters, Linda, Rachel and Michelle, and they all have their own stories.
The book jumps back and forth in time, following those stories, from Felix and Bambi’s first meeting at a 1959 high school dance and on through the ensuing decades, flicking from story to story, raising ever more questions. Who killed Julie? Was she on her way to Felix? What happened to Felix? And, perhaps most importantly to Bambi and her three daughters, “How could he?”
The pieces, scattered like an upended jigsaw puzzle, finally lock into place with a satisfying click, the questions answered, if never quite resolved—a detour-rich journey full of misplaced faith, resentment, and betrayal littered with hurt and pain.
But oh, what a journey.
Lippman, a thoughtful, deliberate writer who never met a surface she didn’t try to scratch, always knows exactly where she’s going, even as her hapless characters are repeatedly blindsided by life. In a world of pretenders, this is real world noir, and Lippman is a master.