Cassandra and Calliope knew each other as children. Which of  them will unravel the other’s crime?

At first, that riddle feels stolen from a Greek tragedy, the kind that never quite gets translated from the original language. But it’s also among the central questions in a not-quite-mystery novel by Laura Lippman, Life Sentences , recently out in paperback ($14.99, Avon). Her Cassandra is bestselling memoirist Cassandra Fallows, and her Calliope a super-quiet young woman who may or may not have murdered her infant son. Lippman’s novel traces Fallows’s journey as she tries to learn what is true, in many senses of the word.

Generally, I have little patience for books whose main characters are writers — especially rich, well-connected novelists in some sort of angst.  But not when the book in question is by Laura Lippman (right), who spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper reporter, writing the first of her “Tess Monaghan Mysteries” while working full-time at the Baltimore Sun.

Each of those novels  pulls the reader not just into a good mystery’s taut plotting and crisp dialogue, but into the heart of a troubled city — one now familiar to millions of fans of  HBO’s The Wire, whose executive producer lives with Lippman. (And as we learned this week, director Nicole Holofcener is slated to film another Lippman novel set in Baltimore, Every Secret Thing.)

Life Sentences has all the ingredients listed above, including that taut sense of mystery. Here, though, Lippman uses them to inquire deeply into some hard questions — about friendship, race relations, and how the fragility of memory can twist what we feel or even what we think we know.

Lippman has been wrestling with these issues awhile, even though she is not a memoirist. After her Web site launched in 2001, she wrote: “I have received so many beautiful stories — some about Baltimore, some about childhood.” With that in mind, she started  The Memory Project at Journalscape, in which she introduced a set of writing prompts to help people recall and record their own pasts.

In Life Sentences, Cassandra Fallows embarks on her quest after writing two wildly successful memoirs about growing up in Baltimore. The first one recalled her years as the only white girl among a circle of four friends, and included a scene set on the day of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, when her father met the love of his life (not her mother).

Watching TV in a hotel on a book tour, Fallows  sees a photo of her junior-high classmate in a segment that mentions the 30-year-old unsolved murder of her baby boy. She decides that the story of how she herself went one way and Calliope Jenkins went another might make a great work of narrative nonfiction.  She moves back to Baltimore and sets out to find Jenkins  — who has melted into anonymity far from the city — and to check in with other  childhood friends, none of whom particularly wants to talk.

Lippman paints masterful portraits of the former friends: the beautiful artist Tisha Barr-Holloway; Donna Howard-Barr, daughter of one of Baltimore’s most esteemed judges (married to Tisha’s younger brother); and Fatima, once leader of their small pack, who has left them all behind for born-again Christianity but remains glamorous and determined. Other vivid characters include Teena Murphy, the cop who tried for years to “break” Calliope Jenkins, now working as a Nordstrom’s salesclerk, and Jenkins’ first attorney, the brilliant and politically astute Gloria Bustamante.  At first, no one’s talking and it all seems fruitless, especially after Fallows gets sexually involved with another of Jenkins’s attorneys. “This is going to end badly,” she tells herself, and we have to agree.

Eventually, of course, Fallows finds Calliope and learns far more than she ever expected. But that knowledge encompasses much more than Calliope’s story: it extends back to the life Fallows thought she had documented so well. If a historic moment is recounted differently by each witness, what really happened? Fallows’s inquiry finds her questioning not only what happened, but what happens when someone turns what happened into a story. “It was your book, but it was my life!” one of her school friends sobs. Whose story is it, and can it change?

Lippman’s novel is, at first glance, a mystery, hiding its deeper themes in a wave of fluid storytelling. But as with The Great Gatsby or Invisible Cities, the questions she raises linger long after the last page has been read. You might even be inspired to call your mom or best friend and check your memory of important moments. As Lippman suggests, you may be surprised at where “Do you remember….?” could lead.

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