I suppose, having left Laura Lippman’s latest over there on the nightstand for so long — I finished it weeks ago — I oughta say something about it. Laura reads this blog, pops in once in a while, and generally offers good advice when asked and anyway, I wrote about “The Ruins,” so I should also write about “No Good Deeds.”
For me, it’s the old praise/pan problem. Pans are easier, and “No Good Deeds” deserves praise. High praise. It’s the Best Tess Yet — Tess being, of course, Tess Monaghan, Lippman’s serial character. (She’s been writing so-called standalone mysteries every other book, in recent years.) I used to think the best thing about mysteries and crime fiction was, they didn’t ask too much of the reader and so we wouldn’t ask too much of them. That was a long time ago, before I read Elmore Leonard and John D. MacDonald and Martin Cruz Smith and any number of cut-above genre novelists. I didn’t realize how accustomed I’d become to good mysteries until I read a bad one, which I did this week: “The Abortionist’s Daughter.” Great title, lousy everything else. I guessed whodunit not long after the character was introduced, flipped ahead to confirm my suspicion and took my time getting through the rest of the story. I put it down whenever it got on my nerves or required a suspension of disbelief I didn’t want to make, and the last one made me put it down for good. Every so often I want characters in fiction to break the fourth wall and speak the truth; I wanted Lt. Sipowicz on “NYPD Blue” to tell his little boy, “Mommy died because she got the lead in a sitcom next season,” for instance. The only thing that could have saved “The Abortionist’s Daughter” for me would be for one of its characters to say, “Hey, who left all these herrings lying around? And why are they all red?”
So, back to Tess, and Lippman. I guess it’s common knowledge that Lippman is the best girlfriend of David Simon, the executive producer of “The Wire,” and everything critics say about him when they’re tripping over themselves to top last season’s superlatives can be said of Lippman, too: She doesn’t make up stories so much as she reveals what makes stories happen. That is, her genre is as much social realism as it is crime, and “No Good Deeds” is her most successful so far at demonstrating how the characters got where they are — how Tess’s boyfriend, Crow, happened to bring home a street kid he met working a flat-tire scam outside a Baltimore soup kitchen; how the street kid happened to have knowledge of a recent murder of an assistant U.S. attorney; how the people investigating that crime do their jobs; and, of course, because Lippman was a victim of clueless newspaper management, how those stories get covered in the proverbial first draft of history. (I don’t think I’m giving anything away to reveal: Not very well.)
I don’t know what you look for in fiction, but for me as a reader, one of the deepest satisfactions is watching a writer get better over time. Tess’ stories keep getting better — more involved, yes, but not ridiculously so. Just deeper and more satisfying. There’s still a long weekend of summer left. You could do worse than to spend it with Tess.