Book Review(s): Laura Lippman’s “Tess Monaghan” books

First off, I should say I’ve only read the first three, and there are more to come. The heroine, Tess Monaghan is a late 20 something down-sized former reporter in late 90s Baltimore. At the beginning of the first book “Baltimore Blues” she is not doing much with her life.

She keeps fit by rowing, she lives above her aunt’s bookshop and she negotiates her Jewish-Catholic family. She is hired by a rowing buddy to check up on his fiancee, and the plot thickens satisfyingly from there. Well-drawn characters, a sympathetic heroine, a plausible enough mystery with some deliberately-left-untied loose ends. What more could you want at the outset of a series about a young female private eye? Lippman writes well; description, dialogue and action all cohere, and the plotting is efficient. Tess shows herself to be tough, smart and ready with a wisecrack, which is de rigeur for any detective, but especially a female one.
In the second book, “Charm City” she is embroiled in a newspaper scandal, and in the third “Butcher’s Hill”, her first as a “proper” private eye, she is tracking down children who witnessed a crime that put a ‘vigilante’ behind bars for five years.
Upsides. Lippman writes well, and has given her heroine the right background to comment on all sorts of social ills, not least the hypocrisies of the media. This from “Butcher’s Hill” :

Just a week ago, a jogger had found a woman’s body in the overgrown weeds at the pagoda’s feet, her throat slashed, her face literally beaten off. The [newspaper] had given it a paragraph on page three. City woman killed. Tess knew how to translate this particular bit of newspaperspeak, how to decode the clues offered up by the story’s very placement and brevity. Drugs, prostitution claim another deserving 21

Lippman’s also good on – gasp – class, and in the third book says interesting things about white people’s blindness/limitations on race. I will be reading the rest of these, in the sequence they were published, and will do individual reviews.

Down-sides Well, shouldn’t you be reading Proust? Or Doris Lessing? You know, something embiggening? But if you are going to fritter your limited reading life away on something other than the classics, then this is as quality fritterature as it gets.

I’d put this alongside Sarah Paretsky and Marcia Muller, which is, for me, pretty high praise.

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