Reviewed by Craig Sisterson
Luisa “Lu” Brant is the newly elected—and first female—state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland, a job in which her widower father famously served. Fiercely intelligent and ambitious, she sees an opportunity to make her name by trying a mentally disturbed drifter accused of beating a woman to death in her home. It’s not the kind of case that makes headlines, but peaceful Howard county doesn’t see many homicides.
As Lu prepares for the trial, the case dredges up painful memories, reminding her small but tight-knit family of the night when her brother, AJ, saved his best friend at the cost of another man’s life. Only eighteen, AJ was cleared by a grand jury. Now, Lu wonders if the events of 1980 happened as she remembers them. What details might have been withheld from her when she was a child?
I'm a fool.
I'd heard great things about Laura Lippman's crime writing for years. I'd enjoyed her short stories in some mystery collections I'd read. And I'd even bought some of her books - a couple from her Tess Monaghan series and the multi-award-winning standalone EVERY SECRET THING - which sat alongside hundreds of other as-yet-unread titles on my many bookcases spread across three cities.
But 2016 release WILDE LAKE was the first of her novels I'd read.
I'm a fool.
WILDE LAKE was one of the very top books I read last year, out of more than 150 titles.
It's an exquisite, multi-layered tale about family, secrets, small towns, changing social mores, justice, the stories we tell ourselves, cling onto, and the way we remember things. That may sound like a grab-bag of themes, but in Lippman's adroit storytelling hand the result is an elegant, thought-provoking novel that flows, builds tension, provokes emotions, and keeps you riveted throughout.
Luisa “Lu” Brant's life has been a rollercoaster mix of success and loss. She grew up in supposedly idyllic small-town Maryland, but without her mother, who died soon after Lu's birth. Her father Andrew was a successful and well-respected State Attorney for Howard County, and her older brother AJ an all-star everything. They had a good family life, but AJ ended up killing someone after his graduation party. Defending a friend who'd been attacked. AJ was cleared and the community, and Lu's family, carried on with their lives, rarely if ever addressing the incident.
Now Lu, herself a lawyer and mother of twins, has moved back to her childhood home, following the death of her husband. Not just moved back to her hometown of Columbia, but her actual home, living with her retired father in the house in which she grew up. Memories seep from the walls. The housekeeper who helped raise Lu now helps raise Lu's own children. She's even taken on her father's old role as State Attorney for Howard County. Her present and past are strongly entwined.
When local waitress Mary McNally is killed, and a local misfit who is about the same age as Lu's older brother is implicated, Lu's first murder case as State Attorney starts pulling on those threads linking her present and past. Pull, pull, pull... Lu's life as she's known it starts to unravel.
Lu isn't the most likable protagonist, but she's very 'real', and I found her thoroughly engaging even if I wasn't always completely 'on her side', so to speak. Like with many of the characters in WILDE LAKE, major and minor, we come to understand why she is the way she is, the accumulation of life experiences that feed into who she's become. Lippman does a fine job creating complex characters.
WILDE LAKE is a great novel about character and place, about the stories we believe and tell ourselves as we live our lives, that also happens to be a mystery novel. Lippman crafts a terrific sense of place, geographically and sociologically. She brings Columbia and it's citizens to vivid, multi-faceted life. Minor characters aren't mere ciphers, there's a strong sense of authenticity throughout the cast. WILDE LAKE digs into tricky areas, but never seems to be preaching or telling the reader what to think. It's just a great story that unfolds, causing the reader to ask questions in their own minds.
An excellent novel from an excellent author.
Craig Sisterson is a lapsed lawyer who writes features for leading magazines and newspapers in several countries. He has interviewed more than 180 crime writers, discussed crime writing onstage at arts and literary festivals in Europe and Australasia, on national radio, has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards, and is the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson