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Originally published Sunday, February 23, 2014 at 6:15 AM

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‘After I’m Gone:’ Laura Lippman’s latest spellbinder

Laura Lippman’s spellbinding new novel “After I’m Gone,” based on the real-life disappearance of a Baltimore con man and bookmaker, tells a tale of a man’s vanishing and its effect on his family.

Special to The Seattle Times

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“After I’m Gone”

by Laura Lippman

Morrow, 352 pp., $26.99

Laura Lippman’s remarkable new novel revolves around a charismatic con man and bookmaker named Felix Brewer. He’s very loosely based on a real-life figure: Julius “The Lord” Salsbury, a Baltimore nightclub owner and gambler who, faced with a long prison term, vanished and never surfaced.

In 1976, fictional Felix pulled a similar stunt, taking a small fortune with him. He’s a fascinating figure and his method of disappearing is intriguing, but Lippman shrewdly focuses instead on the women in his life.

At one point there were five of them, all strong personalities: Felix’s wife Bernadette, known as Bambi; their daughters Linda, Rachel and Michelle; and his mistress, Julie.

Julie disappeared 10 years to the day after Felix, presumably joining him in exile. But now it’s 2001 and her body has been found.

Enter a retired Baltimore detective, widower and failed restaurant owner named Roberto “Sandy” Sanchez. Sandy, an appealing and empathetic character, earns cash by taking on cold cases like Julie’s murder.

In addition to this contemporary investigation, flashbacks vividly paint what came before — Felix’s heyday and the years of painful uncertainty for his family.

Although there’s a crackerjack mystery here, with some sharp stings at the end, Lippman’s attention is always on the heartbroken and angry Brewer women. Their complex, nuanced reactions to the crime are at the heart of the story.

In this regard — focusing less on solving a mystery than on using the conventions of crime fiction to compassionately examine emotions and personalities — “After I’m Gone” resembles Lippman’s other stand-alone books. They’re darker than her generally sunny mysteries about Baltimore private detective Tess Monaghan.

No matter what mode she’s in, however, Laura Lippman has an apparent inability to produce a boring book, and “After I’m Gone,” one of her best, is spellbinding.

Adam Woog’s column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.

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