Remembrance of Crimes Past

Life Sentences
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 344 pages, $24.99

Laura Lippman is a virtuoso. Prolific, yes—after a dozen novels in as many years, she chased What the Dead Know, her spellbinding drama of taken and mistaken identity, with the sturdy 10th installment in her Tess Monaghan franchise, then published a collection of short stories and a Sunday serial in The New York Times Magazine. But the psychological texture of Ms. Lippman’s fiction—its pointillist attention to detail, its robust sense of moral order—neatly rebukes critics who would dismiss her as that unspeakably base creature, the crime writer.

Life Sentences, her fourth stand-alone title, is no exception. Its heroine, Cassandra Fallows, vaulted to celebrity as the writer of two memoirs recounting her childhood in civil-rights-era Baltimore and her two failed marriages. After the tepid reception of her debut novel—“Her editor was already hinting that—much as they loved, loved, loved her novel—it would be, well, fun if she wanted to return to nonfiction”—Cassandra decides to mine the past once more, this time excavating a forgotten grade-school classmate named Calliope (“Callie-ope, almost like Alley Oop”) Jenkins, whose infant son vanished two decades ago. Rather than cooperate with the authorities, Callie languished in prison for seven years—a murderess, Cassandra assumes, a “modern-day Medea.” Yet as her investigation unsettles the sediment of Callie’s past, Cassandra plunges through a trapdoor into the sunless cellar of her own history, where truth and memory refract each other like warped mirrors. Has she misjudged the formative friendships of her youth? What secrets detonated her parents’ marriage?

It’s a canny, topical conceit: a memoirist who suddenly challenges her memories. So if Life Sentences doesn’t rival Ms. Lippman’s very best work—if her roulette wheel of narrators revolves somewhat less smoothly here than in What the Dead Know (2007); if Calliope the cipher ultimately resists scrutiny—it nonetheless burnishes the author’s reputation as one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary fiction. Cassandra, fitfully neurotic, professionally self-absorbed, intrigues and exasperates equally, and her probe of a racially integrated community is both credible and revelatory. (Stephen L. Carter aside, very few mainstream novelists have featured affluent blacks in their books.)

Like Penelope at her loom, Ms. Lippman artfully weaves classical allusion into her prose. Cassandra, panting in bed against a married man whose steely wife “was formidable when denied,” compares her lover to Agamemnon, “the warrior who took Cassandra as his trophy after sacking Troy, and the two were later murdered.” Our heroine recalls how her father, a classics professor and flammable narcissist, had hoped to name her Athena: “After all, Athena sprang, fully formed, from her father’s head, while her mother … remained imprisoned inside. My father admired this arrangement.” And Calliope, of course, is the namesake of the muse of heroic poetry—who once fatefully tangled with the god of war.

By novel’s end, when the frayed filaments of plot are fluently braided and bound, Ms. Lippman has once more challenged, realigned and ultimately transcended the boundaries of genre. “How many pages could one … life produce if you weren’t a head of state or a general?” Cassandra wonders. The answer, in Laura Lippman’s case, is “not enough.”

Daniel Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford. He can be reached at books@observer.c.

Remembrance of Crimes Past