Urged by husband David Simon, Laura Lippman takes on a real-life Mobtown mystery
Published: February 5, 2014
When numbers man, sports book, and strip club owner Julius “The Lord” Salsbury disappeared in 1970, he left behind one of Baltimore’s most abiding mysteries. His life up until then is the backdrop for Barry Levinson’s Liberty Heights, but what happened when he split town after being sentenced to 15 years on a gambling charge and losing an appeal has long been the subject of speculation among cops, denizens of the Block, and reporters. David Simon, the creator of The Wire and Treme, is one of the reporters who caught the Salsbury bug.
“The dynamic of this man leaving in the middle of his life, picking up his entire life, and disappearing was real interesting. It always had been,” he says. “As a police reporter, you came to the Salsbury case as soon as you came to The Sun.” Accustomed to looking at crime on a structural level, Simon says: “I’m interested in how a guy gets 15 years for gambling right at the edge of a city going to hell over something far more profound with drugs. And a guy who’d never participated in violence himself, had no regard for violence, a dollars-and-cents guy. I’m looking at it as the last great overreach of a government that couldn’t tell the difference between sin and vice.”
Simon has written several stories on the case over the years, including one about the funeral of Salsbury’s mistress, Pam Gail. But he kept thinking it would make a good novel and he told his wife, Laura Lippman, that she should write it.
“At first it was just sort of polite, ‘Sure,’” she recalls shortly after walking from the house she shares with Simon and their 3-year-old daughter through single-digit temperatures to the Wine Market in Federal Hill, where she orders red wine and petite tender, medium-rare. “But David has the advantage of having access to me to the point that he can keep reiterating an idea. I couldn’t get it at all, and then there was this moment when he mentioned the five women that I was like, I can write a novel about five women. That’s what I do, I write novels about women.”
Lippman took the book, After I’m Gone, her 19th, which comes out next week (see excerpt, page 14), in her own direction.
“The book is so clearly not based on the Julius Salsbury story,” Lippman says, adding that she “did enough research into Salsbury to know that his wife was nothing like Bernadette ‘Bambi’ Gottschalk Brewer, who is a complete invention,” as are her three daughters, Linda, Rachel, and Michelle.
The invention of these characters who are left behind by Felix Brewer—the charming Salsbury-esque character who disappeared—allows her to investigate a far more complicated mystery than the ultimately mundane question of what happened to a petty criminal: It allows her to explore absence, “the lives of women in the absence of a man,” and the complicated relationship between different generations. “It is very much the book of a baby boomer that honors and celebrates the choices of women of my mother’s generation,” Lippman says several days before her 55th birthday. “I didn’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write this valentine to women of my mother’s time and own the fact that women of my time really did have greater choices,’ but that’s what it turned into.”
In addition to his wife and daughters, Brewer leaves behind a girlfriend—one of many he met at the club he owned on the Block. But Julie Saxony is more significant than any of her predecessors; she’s the one who helped Felix escape, and the only one who Bambi ever hated.
Many people, including Simon, would view the dynamics of the story in terms of this love triangle. “I was thinking of the triangle between Pam Gail and [Salsbury’s] wife, that he had this kind of bifurcated life,” he says. “He left Pam the club and made arrangements for his family, and I thought that made an interesting arrangement.”
While Lippman uses this tension—between Bambi Brewer and Julie Saxony—as an engine to move her plot, her real concern is far more complicated, what Simon calls, “really carefully considered depictions of what it means to be a woman in this American life.”
Among the more interesting relationships among women in After I’m Gone is the dynamic between the three Brewer sisters. And in this, Lippman, who comes from a small family, is also indebted to Simon.
“It’s really a tribute to my in-laws,” she says. “It’s interesting to me because the ages of the three Brewer sisters, it’s not exactly the same but it’s really close to David’s family. I’ve always been attracted to, especially in my own reading and television-viewing, these stories about big families that have a sense of themselves as being something more than other families. My in-laws come from a really big, complicated family. There is that sense of ‘We are the Simons.’ There is a thing called a Simon and it is identifiable—that goes all through David’s family, whether they talk about his mother’s family, the Ligetis, who are Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, and they talk about the Ligeti ability to hold a grudge. All these families have identities. I can’t help but sort of romanticize and be fascinated by these big, complicated families where there are feuds.”
The importance of family helped Lippman structure the book. Families come together at holidays, celebrations, religious milestones, and parties. The book jumps around in time, following two—or perhaps three—main threads. All of the events that occur in the past take place at one of these events.
“In the very first attempt to start it, it started in the present day at a synagogue, and starts with the one daughter wearing a fur coat she shouldn’t be able to afford and a watch she shouldn’t have and driving a car she couldn’t possibly afford and attracting the attention of someone who used those facts against her,” Lippman says. And though it no longer comes first, the scene remained essential to the book. Then she went back in time to that same character’s bat mitzvah. When a door closes, everyone jumps, imagining that it is Felix—present in his absence, like Elijah at the Passover Seder. That single scene resonates throughout, embodying ghostly absence.
The other part of After I’m Gone is set in 2012, when a former detective who works as a consultant for the Baltimore Police Department reopens the case of Julie Saxony’s murder, which occurred almost 10 years to the day after Felix’s disappearance. One of the striking things about the book is how long it takes that detective, a blond Cuban named Sandy, to meet up with the Brewer family as he works his way back through the files. The sudden shifts in time could get confusing, but Lippman manages not only to hold it all together, but to make it feel taut and essential. Simon gives a bit of insight into how she does it: “One of the things she does when she writes is these nonverbal constructs,” he says. “It will be like color and shape, it will stretch across the wall. Each color is a plot line or character, and the shapes are when something happens, and she looks at it as she’s trying to achieve a pace and a balance. There’s no words on the stuff, but there will be a layer of these things and it stays up there for three or four weeks while she’s working on the book. It’s as elaborate a mind game as anything I’ve ever seen in my life.”
As the detective, Sandy is the epistemological stand-in for the reader—and the element that makes After I’m Gone a crime novel. It is no surprise that Sandy meets up with Tess Monaghan, the beloved heroine of Lippman’s longstanding series, and will begin to work as her partner in Lippman’s next book, which she has just finished writing. It is her first Tess book, as she calls them, since 2011. And she is glad to keep Sandy around, because he provides her with another angle on social issues and the world of work.
Sandy retired from the police force to open a Cuban restaurant on the Avenue in Hampden just a little before its time. It failed. His wife died. So Sandy returns to work for BPD as a consultant.
“I love the idea of someone who doesn’t have a gun, doesn’t have a badge,” Lippman says. “It felt very much in tune with our economic times—a guy who has to go back to work. Someone picks up extra money because the pension and the post-retirement life doesn’t provide enough money. So what do you do? You go back into the job you did, without benefits. It’s pretty zeitgeist-y.”
Work is one of Lippman’s main concerns. She came from a newspaper family—her father, Theo Lippman, wrote a column at The Sun for many years—and she worked at the paper for 12 years after stints in Texas and elsewhere.
“That’s the sad irony of my life: Reporting on Baltimore is all I ever wanted to do. And then it was gone,” she says. “We had a covenant when I started in journalism. You can make more money doing something else, but we will have more fun, and as a result, we will tolerate idiosyncrasy. We had fun, we did outrageous things, and there was practical jokes and there was silliness and there was laughter. Then one day, I felt like I looked up and it was much less silly. It felt earnest and corporate.”
Though she was a good reporter, she felt that “there is a passion that was missing,” she says. “I was just never going to be a star, not that being a star matters. My own husband, and I think he would verify this, once said to me, ‘You know, if people looked at The Sun newsroom of the mid-’90s’—I published my first book in 1997—‘you’re not the person anyone’s going to pick to be the person who walks out and becomes a successful novelist.’ And he’s right.”
Still, between 1997 (when she published Baltimore Blues) and the time she left The Sun in 2001, Lippman had published four books.
“I started writing crime because it seemed less presumptuous,” she says. “Which was an observation of the woman who sort of discovered me, a writer and editor named Michele Slung, who probably gets 80 percent of the credit for me having a career at all.”
But she discovered that the crime novel also allowed her to explore the themes she was interested in. “There’s this period in time when mainstream literary fiction sort of abandoned the social novel and crime fiction took it up,” Lippman says. “I’m interested in what people do for a living. And the crime novel, whatever it is, is very interested in what people do for a living, whether it’s a private detective or a homicide cop, you find out what they do and how they do it.”
As she was writing her first novels about Tess Monaghan, a tough reporter in Baltimore who moonlights as a private eye, Lippman’s own work at the Sun, and her first marriage, started to suffer. Both relationships came apart at around the same time, when The Sun transferred her to Baltimore County and she filed a union grievance.
“We had finally reached arbitration in late summer of 2001. I was scheduled to go to arbitration with the Tribune Company, which must have been within a week of 9/11. No planes are flying. I literally ground my teeth so hard that I spat out my back teeth at work,” she says in a scene that sounds like it could come from a crime novel. “It got to a point where I felt like I was being gaslighted and I was in this narrow, narrow ravine where being a successful employee was impossible.”
Eventually, she was offered a “confidential agreement” and left. It was a difficult time, but Lippman says that she is “perversely grateful” for what happened. “No one had my interest at heart, but in the end I was pushed out of the nest. It changed everything. Changed everything about the novels I write.”
In retrospect, Lippman felt that her fiction was too safe while she was at The Sun. “When I had the day job, logically I should have been writing more daringly. But I also had less time to write, so I felt like I had less opportunity to make mistakes.” So when she moved into an apartment on North Charles Street—her friends called it a Mary Tyler Moore apartment—she felt free to be more ambitious and risky and began her first standalone novel, Every Secret Thing, which she calls “the beginning of a big sea change in my work and my attitudes in my work and my ambition.”
Part of the sea change was a shifting temporal frame and perspective that Lippman continues to use. Her work may lack the long sentences and present participles of Faulkner, but the Baltimore that Lippman began to create isn’t, in a literary sense, all that far from Yoknapatawpha County. “Laura’s books, I think, cover the entirety of Baltimore,” says novelist and writer for The Wire George Pelecanos. “If you read her body of work, she’s everywhere. I think that what’s going to happen in the end is you’re going to be able to read her library and have a nice portrait of Baltimore from the latter part of the last century to however long she continues to write.”
Lippman says she was partly influenced in terms of structure by Richard Price’s Clockers. But Lippman took Price’s structure and shifted it toward women. “With Every Secret Thing, this was a very conscious decision, every point of view is female,” she says. “Men are on the sidelines, they don’t get to tell the story.”
Just as she was working on Every Secret Thing, Lippman’s generation of crime novelists, including Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, were also helping destroy the distinction between genre and literary fiction. “George Pelecanos was a friend who had just started a new series, the first was Right as Rain; Dennis Lehane is a friend who had just released Mystic River. And it was like, those guys are doing really kickass stuff,” she says. “And there’s no way that I have more to say about men and violence and masculinity, which is what I saw their books as being about. But I can do stuff about being a woman, about being a teenage girl, and if I tell the stories, I think I have something to say on those topics and I can elbow my way up to the table.” As it turned out, both Pelecanos and Lehane both began to write for her then-boyfriend’s new HBO show, The Wire. But Lippman herself wasn’t interested in working on the show.
“I had things to contribute, but I didn’t see that being a good idea,” she says. “It was kind of a no-win situation. If I did my job well, people would probably assume that David rewrote me, and if I were doing it badly, they might be less than eager to say. I would not do that to the show.”
Nevertheless, the show, which many say is the best program ever, has provided her with an interesting perspective on artistic success. “The really big difference between David and me is that he is working in this field that is historically still quite young. I mean, we’re talking not even 60 years of [television] history. So it is possible at this point to have written the best thing. The field I’m in, you can’t even get to 90th percentile. You’re looking up at this mountain.”
A lot of the comedy in After I’m Gone comes from the sense of the world that Lippman and Simon have helped create. The character Sandy is always annoyed at how much people think they know about police work. “I just imagine that it would piss me off that everyone was talking my lingo,” Lippman says. “Like saying ‘I’m a police. I’m a murder police.’ I hear so much Wire lingo in day-to-day life from strangers who have no knowledge of my connection to Baltimore, much less The Wire.”
Her next book will tackle this directly. “There’s a character, a bookseller, who starts something called Wirecon,” she says. “There comes a point where ignoring something seems fake. If you’re writing about Baltimore in 2013, 2014, and you’re not referencing The Wire, it’s sort of like, ‘come on.’” (The other thing Lippman has felt like she can’t write about: Lauraville. “When your name is Laura . . . people would think it’s bizarrely self-referential,” she says.)
In addition to finishing the new Tess novel, Lippman has finally started to work with Simon and George Pelecanos on the unlikely project of a musical that is based on the music of the Pogues.
Simon and Pelecanos say that, among other things, Lippman is the only one of the three well-versed in the form of the musical. “She was the one using theater words,” says Pelecanos. “I didn’t know what she meant, but she did.”
Lippman sees her contributions to the musical slightly differently. “Because it’s a ghost story, it required a lot of world-building, which George and I were more versed in. I mean, I know David has built worlds, but this is where you really think hard about, It’s a ghost story.”
Which should be something Lippman is used to, because, at its heart, After I’m Gone is a kind of ghost story of the highest order, investigating not a crime so much as the role of memory in binding us together—and tearing us apart.
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