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by Laura Lippman
William Morrow, May 2016
336 pages
ISBN: 0062083457

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Laura Lippman is a fine novelist who frequently writes about the complexity of teenage friendships, the reverberations of crime, and her beloved home, Baltimore. Her latest stand-alone novel involves all three, though rather than using an urban setting, she sets her story in Columbia, Maryland, a utopian "new city" built in the late 1960s as an idealistic suburb between Baltimore and Washington DC. Lippman captures both the optimism that drove the urban exodus and its false front of harmony and wholesomeness, a dichotomy of surfaces and submerged, murky reality that runs throughout the book.

Lu Brandt, a lawyer who is small in stature but fiercely ambitious, has just won an election to serve as the county's first woman state's attorney, a position her father held with distinction for many years. There aren't a lot of homicides in her jurisdiction, so she eagerly seizes on the first. A woman has been beaten to death in her apartment and the suspect is a drifter who seems to have broken into a supposedly empty apartment and killed the woman in a panic. He is inexplicably represented not by a public defender but by the man who Lu ousted from office. That, of course, only makes her more eager to win the case.

Intersecting the third-person present-day story are first-person accounts by Lu, mainly concerning her childhood, raised by a loving if slightly baffled father after her mother died, her relationship with her talented brother and his high-achievement high school crowd, and a moment of violence that changed them all. At a graduation party, an angry kid from the wrong side of the tracks attacked one of her brother's friends with a knife; in the aftermath, Lu's brother was left with a badly fractured arm, the friend was left in a wheelchair, and the assailant was dead, having fallen on his own knife while running away. The book opens with this moment: "When my brother was eighteen, he broke his arm in an accident that ended in another young man's death." But nothing about this "accident" – nothing in Lu's past – was quite the way she remembers it. Funny how that works.

There's something reminiscent of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in Lu's first-person sections, including the discomfort readers recently felt when they learned Scout's story about her family was very different in an earlier draft (later published as GO SET A WATCHMAN). Though the genre is crowded with present-day crimes that uncover family secrets of the past to the point that it's a cliché, WILDE LAKE is unusually accomplished both in its quiet but relentless unfolding of Lu's neatly-folded past, complete with a thoroughly-developed cast of characters, and in the ways that unfolding process becomes its theme. "This present, this day, this very moment we inhabit – it will all be held accountable for the things it didn't know, didn't understand," Lu muses as she wraps up her story, clarifying: "The things we don't know, the things we don't understand." That raises a question: Do we tell ourselves stories about ourselves to remember – or to forget?

§ Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, June 2016

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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