I’d Know Good Writing Anywhere

by

Laura Lippman’s “I’d Know You Anywhere,” opens on the tranquil domesticity of the Benedict family, Eliza and Peter, and their two children, Iso (short for Isobel, aged 13) and Albie (8).  But by the end of Chapter One, the first fissure of that sense of utter calm and peace is revealed: Eliza receives a handwritten letter from a woman writing on behalf of the man who kidnapped Eliza when she was 15.  Walter is now on Death Row with his execution date looming.  The letter says that Walter had seen Eliza’s picture in a magazine and that even after all these years, “[s]till, I’d know you anywhere.”  The letter goes on to explain that Walter feels he owes Eliza an apology and would “love to hear from [her].”

And so we are off.

This isn’t your typical Whodunit.  We know from the outset Walter did it, was caught, and was given a strong punishment.  We know early on that what he “did”  was rape and murder.  Young girls.  Only one of which survived: Eliza.

What we don’t know, what Eliza herself does not know, is WHY her.  What good did Walter see in her and not in the others to spare her life?  Or, from the 15 year old Elizabeth’s point of view, what didn’t he see in her?  What made her so different from the other girls way back then?

Much of the book swaps chapters from current day to 1985, when Eliza was 15 and still “Elizabeth.”  Coincidentally, the Summer of 1985 was also the summer that *I* was 15.  Elizabeth came from a good, middle class family; she was a touch shy.  She didn’t need nor seek to be the center of attention.  She liked that her older sister was the drama hog of the family because the energy always seemed focused off of Elizabeth and that was just fine.  And oddly, the same was quite true for me at 15 as well.  The Elizabeths of the world aren’t better or worse than other teenagers, but they just don’t KNOW exactly who they are yet and they’d prefer the spotlight not to be on them as they figure it out.

We follow Walter before he meets Elizabeth; as he kills his first victim.  We follow as Elizabeth takes a shortcut through the woods and crosses paths with Walter and is kidnapped.  We follow as Elizabeth’s hair is cut to disguise her look, and her clothes get worn day after day becoming soiled and unkempt.  We follow as Elizabeth struggles to work out who Walter is and how she can do things she believes will extend her time with Walter as a plan to extend the time when he will kill her.

Meanwhile, we watch in present day as Eliza struggles with not wanting to open further any line of communication with Walter.  Walter persists, however, and each unannounced missive from Walter shakes Eliza more: to whom else did Walter give her address? How far will he (they?) go to get her to hear him out?

Getting a letter from Walter was like some exiled citizen of New Orleans getting a telegram signed ‘Katrina.’ Hey, how are you?  Do you ever think of me? Those were some crazy times, huh?

Eliza decides to take his call, to hear his apology.  Why?  Because even these 20+ years later, Eliza still questions who she is, who she was, and how to allow herself to be okay with being “the lucky one.”  Well, that plus he promises he’ll tell her details of other girls so that other families can have peace.

But does Walter have yet another plan of manipulation of Eliza up his sleeve?  Will she unwittingly take his bait and play right into his hands?

Mystery aside, Lippman is a good writer.  Her characters are fully developed and evolving.  The relationships she describes are real.  So real, I wondered if Lippman was the mother of a teenage girl; if her parents were psychiatrists (as Eliza’s are).  Here’s a passage relating to Eliza’s father, Manny:

Manny was always careful to use the most neutral words possible–experienced not suffered, or even endured.  Not because he was inclined to euphemisms, but because Eliza’s parents didn’t want to define her life for her.  “You get to be the expert on yourself,” her father said frequently, and Eliza found it an enormously comforting saying, an unexpected gift from two parents who had knowledge, training, and history to be the expert on her, if they so chose.  They probably  did know her better than she knew herself in some ways, but they refused to claim this power.  Sometimes she wished they would, or at least drop a few hints.

Or this description of the woman who has befriended and is helping Walter:

Barbara knew from scared little mouses.  Mice.  She had been one, behind her cranky facade.  She had skittered to her car in the morning, worried it wouldn’t start, skittered into the school, tried to teach history to bored seventh and eighth graders, skittered out of the Pimlico neighborhood at day’s end, cooked dinner, fretted over calories and fat and cholesterol.  Graded papers in front of the television, usually falling asleep there.  Rinse, lather, repeat.

See? Not scary. Well, definitely scary but not macabre.  Bottom line, Lippman understands people.  She gets that we aren’t just “good” or “bad.”  That there are many shades of gray.  And the true gem of this story is NOT the crime or the mystery.  It is the artfulness that is Lippman’s insight and writing.  “I’d Know You Anywhere” is layered and goes deeper, more introspective, than others in its genre.  And to me, that is a beautiful thing.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about my conversation with Laura Lippman about her writing, Eliza and Walter, and other interesting topics.

As I posted yesterday, I have two hardbacks to give away of “I’d Know You Anywhere.”  And all you have to do for a chance to win is just leave me a comment telling me some of your favorite mystery writers, private eye works, or other books of intrigue that were STILL with you long after you were done reading them.  Laura Lippman will be doing a reading at the Garden District Book Shop on October 9th.  So this little giveaway ends Thursday, September 30, so that you’ll have her book in time to attend her reading and have her sign your new book!

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