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[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel]

Author: Laura Lippman

2010, William Morrow

Filed under: Mystery

I’d Know You Anywhere makes for an interesting case study—unfortunately that’s not synonymous with “good novel.” In her author’s note, Lippman divulges that Anywhere is based on a true crime. She gets coy about the precise crime she used as a model, but for our purposes, that’s irrelevant.

The novel’s criminal kidnapped and killed a string of young girls, except for one victim whom he raped but let live. That woman, Eliza, is our protagonist, having aged about 25 years since her abduction.

The narrative splits time between that long-ago summer and the present day, when Eliza has a family and a happy life. Unfortunately, the novel runs aground on that latter B-story. While there’s a bit to be explored in the now (the aftereffects of psychological and sexual trauma, etc.), present-day Eliza just doesn’t have enough to do to make for a compelling novel.

The present-day story starts when Eliza gets a letter out of the blue from Walter, the sociopath who abducted her (and who Lippman characterizes, almost sympathetically, as a misunderstood loser). The two primary questions driving that story are: 1) why is Walter contacting her? and 2) why did Walter let her live all those years ago?

Whether Eliza will agree to visit Walter in jail is never in doubt—if she refuses, there’s no novel. So the dozens of pages Lippman spends convincing us of Eliza’s rationale feel somewhat empty, as do the pages of Eliza working through bureaucratic red tape. The first question also gets answered too easily. Walter contacts her because he’s about to be executed by the state and wants Eliza to recant her testimony and get his sentence commuted.

So the only unknown driving half the novel is why Walter let Eliza live. That lackluster story motor hamstrings the entire book. It’s not that it’s entirely uninteresting, but, for one thing, Walter is an insane serial killer—his motives aren’t going to make a lot of sense. More importantly, I just don’t care enough about Walter’s thoughts to get sucked in as Eliza sifts through paperwork, or makes requests to prison officials, or has mildly weird but certainly not threatening dealings with Walter’s go-between, an anti-death penalty activist named Barbara LaFortuny.

In the meantime, Lippman fills in the gaps with easy, charming scenes of home life, and does well with the character of Eliza’s teenage daughter. Lippman also has a way of keeping things darkly funny, like this wicked gem:

She wanted to have something to show for her summer. Unlike Claudia, she didn’t have a boyfriend. Unlike Debbie and Lydia, she wasn’t daring enough to shoplift, and she had no interest in her parents’ booze. She had to do something in these final weeks of summer that counted as an achievement, and learning how to throw up was her best bet.

If the more charming scenes don’t quite jive in a crime novel, it’s a pardonable offense—I’d rather an author attempt to entertain than attempt to create some bleak, unenjoyable mood.

However, a mild curiosity and the awkwardness of puberty can’t compete dramatically with the other half of the novel: the account of the weeks Eliza spent as Walter’s prisoner all those years ago. Those flashback chapters, to me, center around the scene when Walter kidnaps another young girl (Holly, whom he eventually kills), and Eliza is too scared and pliable to warn Holly, and too scared not to help Walter abduct her. Eliza’s shame and remorse as she recalls passively letting Holly climb into the truck, even as she’s silently willing her to run away—this was the novel’s peak.

This is where the case study comes in. A novel based on a true crime necessarily features an original addition to the crime itself (otherwise it’s not a novel). If that added part is compelling, preferably more compelling than the crime itself, then we’ve got a racehorse. If the addition, as in Anywhere, simply isn’t enough to shore up half a novel, then it’s time to put the beast to sleep.

It’s a shame; I wanted to like this book more than I did. I think Lippman has the tools, with more focus, to handle this kind of subject matter well—and, indeed, her handling of rape is more nuanced and affecting than Karen Russell’s in Swamplandia! But the present-day storyline simply doesn’t have the structure or the foundation to make for a good novel. Next time, I recommend an all-new novel conceit.

Similar reads: The Missing, by Tim Gautreaux; The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst—both are well-written but unsatisfying mysteries. My favorite piece of writing based on a real news story is the play M. Butterfly, a play by David Henry Hwang.

Edgar impact: Lippman is a charming writer, and I wanted to like this book more than I did. Ultimately there isn’t enough of a mystery here to grab the award.