Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan

I haven't posted much lately about books I've been reading. But that's not because I'm not reading. On the contrary, I'm flying through books.

At the suggestion of andif, I've been reading Laura Lippman's series of mystery novels that feature Baltimore private investigator Tess Monaghan. I love a good mystery series and this, so far, has been a really good series. I've read Baltimore Blues, Charm City, Butcher's Hill, In Big Trouble, The Sugar House and In a Strange City. I'm working on The Last Place right now.

Like I said, I love mystery novels. But I don't usually talk about them. Sometimes one of my reading groups picks one to read and there really isn't a whole lot to say after everyone decides whether or not the ending was surprising. A series is another matter because then there is often (but not always) an underlying story that builds the characters and can be a topic for discussion. But most reading groups don't commit to a whole series.

I thought I'd take a break from reading and talk a bit about why I'm enjoying this series. First, she hasn't annoyed me with erroneous lawyer detail. Yes, there is the obligatory lawyer, but he has only a small part in the series. He is important to Tess because he is a rowing coach as much as for his legal connections. Lippman spends very little time ever talking about him practicing law - which is a good thing. That means I'm not distracted by erroneous or unlikely lawyer details, as I often am in these types of series. And what she does talk about she either gets right or it's close enough to right that it isn't a distraction for me. For instance, one of the clever things about this series, is the reason there is an obligatory lawyer in the first place: to give Tess a confidential relationship with her clients. That's a really good reason and it's believable. Lippman doesn't quite get it right (or, she got it right once but then stopped getting it right), but that doesn't really matter because she has the overall idea right.

The other thing she's done right is give really good descriptions of Baltimore that paint a picture but don't go into so much detail that it is distracting. I like a mystery series that makes me feel part of a city: the London of Lord Peter Wimsey; the Rome of Marcus Didius Falco; the Edinburgh of John Rebus. Often when an author sets a story in a "second" city there is either too much description or too little. If there isn't enough description there is no sense of place. But too much detailed description (and this is usually the case) makes the reader feel like a visitor instead of a resident.

So far in my reading only one book was set outside the Baltimore area: In Big Trouble. So far, it has been my least favorite of the series, but not because of the descriptions of San Antonio. She does a good job with those. No, the problem for me was that Tess ended up solving the mystery in Texas the same way she would have done it in Baltimore, which was completely unrealistic. Lippman has done a great job of giving Tess a network in Baltimore with lots of contacts that can help her solve cases: newspaper contacts from her previous job, legal contracts, contacts within the police force and especially family and friend contacts that are very believable. Tess comes from a low profile politically connected family in Baltimore; not the glamorous political connections but the working class, bureaucracy connections (I'm waiting to see if she ever uses her mother's connections at the NSA). She also has a good friend that comes from money and that provides her with entry into circles that would otherwise be closed to her.

But in Texas she has no real contacts and yet... everyone opens up to her. I found it especially unbelievable that a homicide detective would sit there and share speculation about the case with a total stranger who has just found the dead body. This is one of my pet peeves about many mysteries I read. The detective just has to show up and everyone opens up. I was glad when Lippman moved Tess back to Baltimore.

I particularly liked Butcher's Hill, which had a couple of really good plot twists that were unexpected but not so much of a stretch that I found them unbelievable. And I liked In a Strange City which had a wealth of interesting tidbits about Baltimorean Edger Allen Poe. So far, the plots aren't formulaic and Tess grows and learns as the series goes along. In the current book I'm reading, The Last Place, she has been forced to go to anger management classes and it will be interesting to see how she comes out of those. (This one also involves a serial killer and is giving me the creeps.)

I'll be sorry when I get to the end of this series.