For Lippman, a fictional take on a true Baltimore mystery

'After I'm Gone' takes inspiration in the women left behind by a gambling kingpin

  • "After I'm Gone," by Laura Lippman.
"After I'm Gone," by Laura Lippman. (HarperCollins / Handout,…)
February 07, 2014|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore novelist Laura Lippman's husband, David Simon, once suggested that she write a novel based on the real-life disappearance of local gambling kingpin Julius "The Lord" Salsbury.

Naturally, she ignored him.

"David saw the story with a reporter's heart and intellect," said Lippman, who, like Simon, is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun. "He still has this passion for fact and investigation and getting the real story. When he brought me Julius Salsbury, he said, 'Maybe you'll figure out where he went.' "

Salsbury fled the state in 1970 while awaiting the outcome of his appeal on a federal gambling conviction. He was never seen again.

It was a fascinating tale, but Lippman couldn't see anything that her imagination might add. Then Simon happened to mention that Salsbury left behind a wife, three daughters and a mistress — and something clicked.

The tale that emerged tells the stories of how the five women coped with being abandoned and then went on with their lives. The structure of the novel is a cold-case investigation into the murder of the mistress, Julie Saxony, who disappears 10 years to the day Felix Brewer (the character Salsbury inspired) disappeared. Her body later was found in a secluded area of Leakin Park.

"I happen to think 'After I'm Gone' is the best book I've written so far," Lippman said. "Other people might consider that a really low standard. But it manages to be a crime novel that someone who never reads crime novels might read."

That's an ambitious claim, considering that Lippman's 19 previous books, which include the series featuring private investigator Tess Monaghan, have made best-seller lists and won numerous awards for crime fiction.

Lippman, a 55-year-old Federal Hill resident, kicks off her national book tour Tuesday at the Ivy Bookshop. Here is an edited and condensed version of a recent chat about the mysterious craft of crafting mysteries:

How did the character of the cold-case investigator, Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez, come to you?

I saw a picture of Sandy in my head: a tall, lanky older man, with blond hair fading to gray and greenish eyes. He was skinny, but with a bit of a potbelly. Even though he had this really hangdog thing going on, he never was self-pitying.

That's when one of those weird writer things happened. You're sitting there, and suddenly you're in a dialogue with a character.

I asked him, "Why are you from Cuba?"

He said, "Trust me. I am."

I then had to figure out a way how a kid from Cuba could end up in Baltimore. I didn't even know about Operation Pedro Pan [in which 14,000 children were sent from Cuba to Miami between 1960 and 1962] until I wrote this book.

Let's talk about structure. "After I'm Gone" jumps back and forth in time. Only Sandy's investigation into Julie Saxony's death moves forward chronologically. Every time he learns something new, there's a flashback to the corresponding historical event.

It didn't make sense for Sandy to talk to anyone in the family before he had a good sense of what had happened. He needed to go back over all of this ground before confronting the likely suspects.

The idea that the name [of the murderer in a cold case] is already in the police file is something [retired Baltimore police detective] Donald Worden taught me a long time ago. The person who did it has been interviewed or talked about. They may not have been interviewed as a suspect, but in Donald Worden's experience, the name is always in the file.

So it made sense to alternate these very narrow investigatory chapters about Sandy with big scenes about Felix's wife and daughters that are designed around milestones and rituals. Everything is a holiday, a party or an event. It's like a series of photograph albums.

Characters from your stand-alone novels show up in the later books in your series about private investigator Tess Monaghan, and vice-versa. What does that represent for you?

My books are very much about is what it is to live in Baltimore, what it means to be a Baltimorean, how many types of Baltimore and Baltimoreans there are.

In 2001, I told my then-editor in the U.K. that I had no intention of ever writing anything outside my series. Two years later, I wrote a stand-alone.

Then my rule was, "OK, they're two different worlds. I'm not going to have Tess show up in a stand-alone.

So then I wrote a Tess novel and someone from a stand-alone showed up. Somehow I justified that.

Then, in my 2011 book, "The Most Dangerous Thing," Tess shows up in a very small, benign way.

I'm a very bad judge of the future.

I'm like, "OK, wait a minute — this is Baltimore, or Smalltimore, and I need to acknowledge how connected these worlds are. You're going to have these random encounters.

In the Tess book I'm currently working on, everybody's there. I weave my worlds together, and it's a joy.

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