Life Sentences by Laura Lippman

In Laura Lippman’s latest, a self-absorbed memoirist-turned-novelist once again delves into her past, searching for material.  thinking she has exhausted her own life, Cassandra Fallows decides to focus on a so-called friend from her childhood, a virtual cipher named Caliope (Callie) Jenkins, who had been convicted of killing her second child years after they lost contact.  The hook was that Caliope had pled the fifth, refusing to speak, even in her own defense.

Though the first chapter struck me as slow, mostly just Cassandra’s self-pitying thoughts about her less than stellar reception as a novelist, the premise and the mystery sounded promising.  The rest of the novel is the story of Cassandra’s attempts to uncover the truth about what had really happened, not only to Callie’s son, but to the woman herself in the intervening years.  Unfortunately, all that is uncovered is Cassandra’s all-consuming narcicism and capacity for self-delusion.  Her futile probing of childhood friends only reveals that no one seems to share the childhood memories she had published for the world’s consumption.  In fact, most of them don’t even want to see her again, let alone talk about Callie or their pasts together.  We also meet a damaged former cop, and I got the feeling we were supposed to believe she was obsessed with the unsolved case, but frankly, I didn’t.  The parody of a well-known, publicity seeking female attorney did nothing to help this tale limp along.

Ultimately, I was bored, and after a couple weeks puzzling, I think I’ve pinpointed why – there is not one single likable character in the entire novel.  The ones who aren’t deeply, even offensively flawed, are so harh that you can’t bring yourself to care about them.  And Lippman’s portrayal of Callie Jenkins as a mysterious cipher is so complete that I couldn’t even maintain a curiosity about what she had gone through or why she had remained silent.  There was just nothing compelling about her.

What I did enjoy about Life Sentences was the undercurrent of personal remembrance and revelation.  How much of our “personal” history is really ours?  Don’t we share it with the people who lived alongside us?  While using our experiences to inspire fiction is common to the point of expectation, straight memoir is a completely different proposition.  What is the truth?  Facts and figures, verifiable information?  Or is it what we recall?  The sum total of what everyone recalls?  As writers, what are our responsibilities to the people we write about?  What are the responsibilities to our readers?

Life Sentences fell short as a mystery for me, but it has its merits as a musing on how we remember what whe have lived through, and how we should handle those memories and the people involved.


Later-Day Cipher by Latayne C. Scott

Twenty years ago, a college professor of mine told my mother, “Stacey never has an opinion, and if she did, she sure wouldn’t ever share it.”  Keeping the grin off his face was an epic battle, one he lost when Mama burst out laughing.  Now, while opinionated, I do try to temper my responses to avoid the clearly offensive, but my sense of the absurd will often color my responses.  You have been warned.

I am a serious and thoughtful Christian, and a lifelong consumer of literature.  Studying for my Master’s in English, I am exposed to some of the finest lit ever written on a daily basis, and I have a limited time for discretionary reading, so I don’t care to waste my time on trite, formulaic, expected writing.  In fact – I simply won’t.  And when I do give my opinion, it will be straight out.  If I wouldn’t read it or didn’t enjoy it, I won’t pass it off on you.  That’s just mean.

Not a big fan of murder mysteries, it is a bit odd how I came to read Latayne C. Scott’s new work of fiction, Later-Day Cipher.  On my morning web-review, I came across her entry on the Novel Matters website, where she is one of the regular contributors.  She was asking for people’s opinions on the trailer for her book, which was a bit out of the ordinary for a piece of Christian fiction.  Since the lack of really excellent Christian fiction is a personal soapbox, and she DID ASK for opinions, I took a few minutes, watched the trailer, and dropped a comment on the blog.

Much to my surprise, and pleasure, the trailer did not scream Christian fiction.  It didn’t scream anything but mystery, and an interesting one at that.  It was something I could recommend to any of my reader friends, Believers or not, something to begin a conversation, not end it, and that is a rare and glorious thing.  To my added pleasure, I received an email from Latayne and she sent me a copy of the book.  I dove in the very night it arrived.

Now, my sis-in-law is a big murder mystery buff, but I am decidedly not.  It’s that aversion to the formulaic that I can’t seem to shake.  And yes, Later-Day Cipher does indeed start out with a murder, but that is just the first layer of the mystery, one that will continue to build long after that initial murder has been solved.  It is with that first murder that Scott introduces us into a world very few of us are familiar with – Mormonism.  The murderer intentionally leaves clues leading directly to the Mormon Church and some of its lesser known facets, clues that will take us deeper into the heart of a mystery hundreds of years old and more complicated than we realize.

Cipher has one thing so often missing in murder mystery/thrillers: an entire cast of complex, interesting characters, not simply an intrepid detective and a calculating killer.  Selonnah Zee, reporter with forensic training, is our pivot point, but she is not the only investigator, and not the only person we can identify with or care about.  She is also not the devout, Scripture spouting sleuth or the jaded, world-weary atheist you might expect.  She’s a woman I could sit down and have coffee with, trying to do her job, care for an aging parent, and actually take a real vacation for once, all while occassionally pondering the big quetions life raises when we don’t have the time or energy to answer them.

During her so-called vacation to visit her cousin Roger, his wife Eliza and their daughter, she meets several interesting people, all while becoming involved in a murder investigation.  In the years since leaving their home, Roger has converted to Mormonism, finding the forgiveness, purpose and belonging there that he so desperately needed.  Also Mormon is the young detective Luke Taylor who was raised in a polygamous family, but doesn’t feel the need to defend his church that so many others do. There is also Petersen, a no-nonsence police chief with a wife and child, who quotes poetry and misses his parents, who both succumbed to Alzheimer’s before the novel opens.  Other, more minor, but certainly not neglected, characters fill out the cast, all nicely rounded – no cardboard here – and all with varying associations to the Mormon Church.  Perhaps the most surprising character of all is the Mormon Church itself.

Scott is a former Mormon, now a Christian, but she is not an angry convert.  This novel is not an attack on Mormonism, or on anyone who chooses that lifestyle, as she reveals that it is more an entire lifestyle, life system, than it is simply a religious affiliation.  Her depiction of the church and it’s followers is not only fair and balanced, but respectful.  Its adherents are not mindless cult zombies, nor are they malicious predators; they are people who have found what we all want, purpose and comfort and belonging to something bigger than ourselves.  Scott doesn’t hesitate topoint out the questions and inconsistancies in Mormonism’s beliefs and history, but there is no Bible-thumping Christian preaching eternity in hell either.  She simply lets us learn about the religion along with Selonnah.

What I think I appreciated the most was that we find out the identity of the murderer long before the end of the novel, but the mystery, instead of being resolved, actually deepens.  Serial killers typically grow more and more extreme in their atrocities, but Scott turns that on its ear as the incidents grow less gruesome, but more baffling as the pages turn.  And the end – I didn’t see it coming.  Bravo.

I believe this is Scott’s first major work of fiction, and there are some rough bits.  Some of the exposition is clearly exposition, largely because it runs on so long – there is an enormous amount of background needed to fully grasp the significance of what is being done, and that can slow the story down, leaving it feeling a bit jerky in places.  Is this her masterpiece?  No, at least, I hope not.  I want to read more, about these people, and from her in general.  Isn’t that really what we’re looking for in a great read?

Latayne C. Scott’s Later Day Cipher is a mystery beyond murder and a glimpse into the world of Mormonism, but perhaps more importantly, it gives us insight into the human heart, in all its different varieties, as it struggles with the big questions:  What do I believe?  Why do I believe it?  Is there something beyond this life?  Is there something more?  I enjoyed this book greatly, and I eagerly await more.  I will be picking up her next, sequel or not.

Oh, and this is, after all, a mystery, so keep your eye out for the requisite red herring – best I’ve ever seen!