BOOK REVIEW: I'd Know You Anywhere
By Laura Lippman, William Morrow, Hardcover, 384 pages, $25.99
Laura Lippman's novel "I'd Know You Anywhere" has a compelling premise -- Eliza Benedict is contacted by the serial killer, now on death row, who had kidnapped and raped her 23 years before, when she was 15 years old. Eliza, formerly Elizabeth Brennan, has a distinction unique among Walter Bowman's victims: At his trial, she was both the most important, because she was the star witness against him, and the least important, because he didn't kill her. A book published afterward suggested that far from being Walter's victim, she was his girlfriend and accomplice, since she'd been "only raped, allegedly." Eliza has since built a life based on being impossible to find, as well as the sense that she can never quite feel safe.
Walter contacts Eliza with the aid of Barbara LaFortuny, an anti-death penalty activist who thinks Eliza might recant some of her testimony and derail Walter's execution. They track Eliza down after Walter sees her picture in a magazine; as he puts it, "I'd know you anywhere." One thing he knows is how to push her buttons; one thing she knows is that if she doesn't respond to him, he'll find some other way to get to her.
Eliza, haunted by survivor's guilt, thinks talking with Walter may explain to her why he kept her alive. Walter always hinted that there were more victims than the two he was known to have murdered. Now he's offering to tell her who the others were if she gives him a hearing.
Lippman's exploration of the boundaries of guilt and responsibility, of relationship and bondage, is one that can resonate for many of us in less extreme circumstances. As a teenage captive, Eliza was convinced that the only way to survive was to do whatever Walter told her to do; she did that so successfully that she missed opportunities to escape or to give Walter away. She particularly feels guilty about Holly Tuckett, the girl Walter killed while Eliza was with him.
Lippman sympathetically portrays the inner life of Eliza as a girl and the tensions between passivity and resistance within her psyche. Eliza, an easygoing, compliant child, was partly set up by her dominating older sister to be controlled by Walter. She came to believe that her only hope of survival was to obey. As she thinks to herself at one point, "Stockholm syndrome" is an "offensively glib" way to describe what happened.
The novel convincingly illustrates how, without liking Walter, she became his companion -- someone that knew him better and gained more of his trust than anyone else in his life. In retrospect, "She knew him as well as she had ever known anyone, including her husband and children." This emotional bond affected Walter as well, as it not only caused him to keep her alive; but also distressed him to the extent that when a state trooper pulled him over for erratic driving, he gave himself up, leading to his capture. Now Walter counts on her compliant personality as a way to keep him from death.
While Walter and Eliza come across as completely believable, Lippman doesn't do as well with her other characters. Trudy Tuckett's role as the murdered Holly's mother seems particularly over the top in her 23-year-old grief and bitterness: She stalks Eliza, gets into her house under false pretenses, and accuses her bluntly (and falsely), "You were an accomplice. You lured her into his truck. ... You offered her up to that monster."
Similarly, Barbara LaFortuny as the death penalty activist is cast as obsessive, manipulative, and driven by her own personal agenda, rather than honestly acting out of her beliefs. While I've certainly known activists who were not angels, LaFortuny strikes me as more of a media-generated construct than a character based on anybody real.
Lippman is more sympathetic to another death penalty opponent, Walter's defense lawyer, who seems straightforward in trying to see that justice is served. Lippman may be implying that only professionals in the justice system should get involved in this debate. Yet the whole burden of living in a democracy is that, in some sense, we all are responsible for what our government does.
Perhaps I'm expecting too much from Lippman in this; as she puts it in a note, "I did my best to make sure that every point of the triangle -- for, against, confused [about the death penalty] -- was represented by a character who is recognizably human." This is a commendable goal for a book in the genre of crime fiction and an example of why Lippman's books are often worth reading -- she is more interested in humanizing than demonizing her characters, regardless of what they have done.