Sunday, August 22, 2010

Life Sentences

Laura Lippman created Tess Monaghan in the mid 1990s.  I was watching Homicide and willing to try a Baltimore based mystery.  Homicide has been off the air for a decade, but I've been faithful to Lippman's work, maybe because I see a little of myself in Tess.  I don't have the adoring, younger boyfriend, but I'm an only child,  have sort of fallen into my current career and have 'long hair' as a central part of my persona.  The rowing lessons, though, go the other way - I was inspired by Tess's hobby, and one of these years will simultaneously have the time and the money to join one of the boathouses.

Life Sentences is not a Tess Monaghan mystery - it's part of Lippman's series-that-isn't-a-series.  Like Lisa Scottoline's books centered on Bennie Rosato's litigation firm, the four (so far) non-Tess books are stand-alone novels loosely connected by recurring characters.  The protagonist is Cassandra Follows, a Baltimore native who wrote a best-selling memoir about her childhood and a less-successful follow-up.  While promoting an even less well-received novel, Cassandra hears a news story linking a current murder to an infant's disappearance nearly twenty years ago.  That child's mother had been Cassandra's classmate in grade school, and since she's going back to Baltimore to interview her father (a retired classics professor) at a fundraiser for her old high school, she decides to investigate what happened to Calliope Jenkins and her missing baby.   

I took a course called "History and Fiction" my sophomore year of college.  We read autobiographies in the final third of the course and discussed the difference between "bias" and "focus" and how two people will see the same event differently.  As Cassandra meets with old friends, she learns that lesson.  Everyone she meets remembers the past differently, and some of them are unhappy with how she's portrayed them.  Cassandra's, and everyone else's, bias fuel the mystery, sealing Calliope's fate with a mixture of racial and class prejudice.  Lippman unraveled this story with just enough clues for me to solve it along with Cassandra.  

This seems to be the Year of the Subplot for me, and there's one in Life Sentences, and unlike most of the other subplots I've encountered recently, I thought this one (involving Cassandra's father and the eventual need to re-evaluate her memoir) was interesting and complementary to the main plot.  My one problem with the book was the insertion of Gloria Bustamonte.  Gloria has appeared in Lippman's other stand-alone books and while she can be an interesting character, she adds nothing to Life Sentences.  Her few scenes could have been rewritten to feature other characters, or someone without baggage created for this book.  She's a minor distraction, though, and despite my initial reluctance (memoirs and memoirists don't interest me), I enjoyed Life Sentences.  I still prefer Tess Monaghan, but I'll keep looking forward to Lippman's other works.

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