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The headline writer in me wanted to call this post “Catch and release,” but I realized I was diminishing the subject just to get your attention. “The one who got away” doesn’t really work either because Laura Lippman’s new novel is not just about a woman who survived a serial killer’s abduction as a teenager.  It’s also the story of Elizabeth Lerner (then), Eliza Benedict (as she’s now known), her family, her abductor, his advocate, the mother of a girl who didn’t get away. It’s about how we all shape our memories, and how we are shaped by them. I’d Know You Anywhere is its perfect title.

Lippman, too, is pitch-perfect. She has honed her storytelling skills with her long-runnning Tess Monaghan series and with a handful of stand-alone tales of psychological suspense, including the superior What the Dead Know. This new book is right up there with that 2007 novel as she again explores questions of truth and identity through the prism of the perceived past.

“I’d know you anywhere.” That seemingly innocent, even cheery phrase takes on creepy, possibly menacing overtones when it appears in a letter to Eliza from Walter Bowman, who abducted her the summer she was 15 and held her hostage for almost six weeks. Walter has been on Virginia’s death row for the last 22 years for the rape and murder of another teenage girl, Holly Tackett, his final victim.

That Walter wants to talk to her before his impending execution turns Eliza’s carefully ordered suburban life upside down. Of course, her husband Peter knows about her past — she refuses to sleep with the windows open — but her own touchy teenage daughter Iso and sweet-natured son Albie don’t know. Eliza would like to keep it that way. But she’s afraid if she ignores Walter, he, or his odd advocate and go-between, Barbara, will keep up the pressure, perhaps bring in the media. Walter hints that he’s still witholding information about other girls he killed. Eliza is being forced back into “Elizabethland.”

Once Eliza cautiously responds to Walter’s overtures, the pace picks up as Lippman fluidly moves between past and present, and the perspectives of  the main characters — Eliza, still wondering why Walter let her live; Walter, whose years in prison have given him time to think; Barbara, who believes Walter’s real agenda  meshes with hers; Trudy Tackett, whose grief for her dead daughter occupies her every waking moment and who blames Eliza for Holly’s abduction; and fact crime author Jared Garrett, who has always been skeptical about Eliza’s testimony and victimhood.

All are convincing because they are so sure of their own motives and narratives. What Eliza fears most is that “her past would become present, truth and lie would mingle, and she would spend the rest of her life explaining herself.” Her older sister Vonnie already is reminding her of some truths of their shared girlhood she has forgotten, or chosen to forget. How reactive she still is, how willing to relinquish control. And Eliza does remember how it was with Walter:

 “She dreamed of rescue, hoped for it, prayed, but she believed it would have to be something that happened to her, not because of her.”

Lippman writes in an author’s note that this book, like others she has written, was inspired by a true crime, but not one she is going to detail and turn into a guessing game. “The bottom line is that there once was a man who raped and killed his victims, with one exception, and that man was put to death for his crimes.” Lippman started thinking one day about the exception, “the sole living victim.” 

I’m pretty sure she then asked herself, “What if?” That’s what novelists do. Inspiration leads to imagination, the search for the truth in fiction, the mystery of memory.

Open Book: I knew Laura Lippman from her books and mutual friends before we met some years ago. We keep in touch these days mostly through Facebook. Her publisher sent me an uncorrected galley of I’d Know You Anywhere (William Morrow/HarperCollins) earlier this summer. I’ve read it twice now, and in between, I reread What the Dead Know.

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