Felix Brewster is a small-time number runner and strip club owner who would be furious at being called “small-time.” He’s one of those not-very-attractive men who get all the pretty girls on the strength of sheer charisma. He casually justifies a lifestyle that preys on the stupidity and dreams of those he fleeces. The foundation of Felix’s ambition is a thirst for the envy of everyone in the scrubby section of Baltimore where he operates. But instead of fame, he winds up with a notoriety which brings him face-to-face with prison time. Coward that he is, in 1976 he disappears without a trace, leaving behind a wife, mistress, and three daughters.
Precisely ten years later, one of these women disappears and the novel really takes off. Baltimore is once again enthralled by the mystery that is (or was) Felix. However, Baltimore and Felix’s remaining women must wait another fifteen years to learn the woman’s fate. Even then, the why and how of her disappearance are years away. In 2012 Sandy Sanchez appears. He’s a retired cop from Cuba with a dogged passion for cold cases, and a pretty good story of his own. With fresh eyes on the case, the answers to all of the mysteries – and there are a bunch of them – finally appear.
The women carry on through nearly five decades without Felix, but he is ever-present in all of their minds. His destitute and gorgeous wife, the aptly-named Bambi, stays in their dream home even as it crumbles around her. His daughters grow up, each carrying the scars of being a child of an absent and notorious father and a terrified mother. Julie, the mistress who wisely drops the stage name Juliet Romeo, carves out a life that looks almost normal. But despite her modest success, Julie is no less damaged and haunted by Felix’s desertion than his wife and daughters. In fact, her role as the perceived floozy in their story dooms her to a fame she cannot shake.
The novel moves across the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, and into 2012, but its real strength is in the early years. If you remember beehive hairdos, or ever made out in an enormous car with “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me ” on the radio, or were terrified by the thought of an unwed teen pregnancy, you’re going to love this book.
In the best tradition of mysteries, there are dozens of characters and nearly as many red herrings. (It’s confusing at first, but just keep reading.) There are lots of secrets, some betrayals, and a growing sense that at its heart this is a story about love and money. Almost every character has a moment at the top of the “Whodunnit” list, but in fact the solution to the mystery is almost beside the point. The real pleasure of After I’m Gone is the well-crafted world that Laura Lippman creates. This is more than a mystery – it’s a rollicking good yarn.
The Attentive Reader will note: Critics have questioned the title of the novel, given that none of it is narrated from Felix’s point of view. I loved this small musical conceit. Felix’s name is on every page and in nearly every conversation. He’s not gone. He’s just not there anymore.