Lippman in form with thriller of haunted past

"I'd Know You Anywhere," by Laura Lippman. Morrow, $25.99.

A man kidnaps two teenage girls, killing one but sparing the other after raping her. The terrible crime dominates the headlines for awhile, only to be eclipsed by even more heinous acts.

Eliza Benedict has tried to bury what happened to her in 1985 when she was a 15-year-old girl named Elizabeth who stumbled upon a man named Walter Bowman who then abducted her and held her prisoner for six weeks.

Now she is married with two children of her own who know nothing of the crime that she survived. Even her name is different, all traces of Elizabeth are gone in her peaceful, if somewhat boring, suburban life.

Then, one day she gets a letter from Walter in prison as he awaits execution after he stumbled on a photo of her in Washingtonian magazine. She is a woman now, not the terrified girl who didn't dare cross him as they traveled together in his truck. But still, he writes, "I'd know you anywhere."

With that ominous line, Laura Lippman, the Edgar-Award-winning author, works her magic once again, creating a taut cat-and-mouse game between a needy sadist and his repressed victim.

The best-selling author of "What the Dead Know" writes a beautifully nuanced novel about an ugly crime in which the past comes crashing into the present.

Elizabeth wants nothing more than to shield her troubled teenager daughter, Isobel, from that knowledge of losing herinnocence. But she believes Walter, who killed at least two girls and probably more, is most dangerous when he is ignored.

Plus she can't resist asking him: "Why me? Why did I get to live when the other girl died?"

That victim was Holly, a beautiful blond girl whom Elizabeth came to resent when she was lured into the truck as the second unwilling passenger.

Stirring the pot for the jailhouse meeting between Walter and Elizabeth is a death-penalty activist named Barbara LaFortuny, who infuses a little humor into the novel with her overbearing ways.

A former teacher who has survived a terrible assault in her classroom, Barbara needs a cause and Walter became that cause.

The book delves into all the undercurrents of resentment toward a victim, including a prosecutor who gives her a hard time for not trying to escape and her sister who resents how the dynamic of the family changed after the incident.

Some of the moving passages of the book are the flashbacks of Walter and Elizabeth's road trip, occupying the space between manipulative chitchat and a strange familiarity. They talk about John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley," inviting preposterous comparisons between this deranged kidnapping odyssey and Steinbeck's famous trek with his poodle.

Lippman has dug deep into the minds of a serial murderer and a petrified girl to create a mesmerizing read.

Whites and blacks alike are targets of prejudice, ignorance and injustice in the rural Mississippi of Tom Franklin's latest novel.

It's a dark tale of two men, now 41, who meet 25 years after a brief high school friendship to find that their past and present lives have more in common than either wants to admit.

The plot is part buddy story, part mystery, part social commentary, all of which don't quite fit together, although Mr. Franklin manages to tie up most of the loose ends before the book is over.

The buddies are Larry Ott, white son of an auto repair shop owner, and Silas Jones, child of a single black mother. Their comradeship had been frowned on by parents and outsiders in the past, and the men are no longer friends.

The mystery concerns the disappearance of a young woman who went with Ott in high school to a drive-in movie and was never seen again.

The social commentary involves the community's lifelong ostracism of Ott for a crime he did not commit, and the rise of Jones, who first went to Chicago on a baseball scholarship, and has now returned to Mississippi as constable of a nearby town. But he has deep-seated problems of his own.

Ott now lives the life of a hermit, subsisting on a small amount of inherited money and going to the repair shop every day even though there are no customers.

Jones harbors secrets that might have exonerated his boyhood friend, while Ott knows things about his ex-friend's parentage that might have changed his life as well. When another local girl goes missing, two decades later, Ott becomes the prime suspect.

Ott is condemned by public opinion but can't defend himself. The author has his protagonist shot in the first chapter, with the worn literary mechanism of keeping Ott in a coma until close to the end. The reader gets to know him in a series of confusing and tedious flashbacks, which alternate with the present-day story of Jones and the demons he is forced to confront.

The perpetrator of at least one of the crimes is obvious from the start, while the struggles of Ott as a sensitive teenager with an insensitive father is another cliche.

Even the plot twist that provides an unconvincing hopeful ending is no surprise. None of these drawbacks would matter if the characters were uniquely drawn, or if the atmosphere of the Deep South delineated something new and compelling.

There are occasional flashes of insight, but for the most part this is a story that's been told too many times before.

Cristina Rouvalis is a freelance writer who lives in Mt. Lebanon. First Published October 3, 2010 4:00 AM


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