Read Tess.

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.

Posted at 2:38 pm in Media |

6 responses to “Read Tess.”

  1. brian stouder said on August 29, 2006 at 3:12 pm

    I’ve been reading The Looming Tower – a riveting nonfiction back-story about Sammy bin Laden and Ayman al Zawawhiri (et al) – that reads like a fictional thriller, albeit one where you know the ending. By the 5th page in, you trip over the name Patrick Fitzgerald, who was one of two US attorney’s questioning a Sudanese informant in 1996, when the name “al Qaeda” first came to light.

    The main fellows are almost comically awkward and uncouth until they come together and catalyze one another, like Bonnie & Clyde. (The concepts of humiliation and vengence seem to be central to the aQ state of mind; several of the key people, including al Zawahiri, endured years in the Egyptian prison system wherein political opponents get beaten and tortured, and emerge looking for vengence)

    Anyway, I saw in the news that Detroit police arrested a serial killer who has mudered at least seven women, and probably many more. Not a ‘mystery’, but a victory (though fleeting) for the good guys

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  2. Connie said on August 29, 2006 at 3:22 pm

    My hold came up and I checked it out just this morning, so thanks for not giving too much away.

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  3. Ralph Hitchens said on August 30, 2006 at 3:25 pm

    I’m listening to “To the Power of Three” during my commute, not one of her Tess novels but one that fits (barely) into the crime/suspense category while indulging — to an incredible degree, one thinks — her love of character development. Definitely “social realism.” The digressions can be maddening, even as they inflate even the minor characters to three dimensions, but I know this novel is going to kick me in the ass at the end and all those detours will have been worth it.

    Thanks for alerting me to the Simon connection; I’m always happy to stumble across “common knowledge.”

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  4. Laura Lippman said on August 30, 2006 at 3:48 pm

    Thanks, Nancy. And Ralph, I hope “Three” comes together for you, as you optimistically predict. It didn’t work for everyone, but it was very much the book I wanted to write that year, if that makes sense. Gosh knows when I’ll get another chance to write about high school theater types.

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  5. MGolden said on September 1, 2006 at 9:03 am

    Been in L.A. the last three days so I’m kinda late. I like GOOD mysteries. I’ve picked up many, read three or four pages and dumped them. Easy to do if it’s a library book. No investment. I like Lippman. Here are four of the best: James Lee Burke, John Sandford, Michael Connelly and T. Jefferson Parker. I read Leonard and Smith. Just the other day I was thinking of going back and looking at John D. MacDonald. I haven’t read anything of his in years.

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  6. David Simon said on September 24, 2006 at 9:30 am

    You describe Ms. Lippman as my “best girlfriend.”

    What are you trying to say, exactly?

    A phalanx of hungry Baltimore lawyers are vectoring toward you as we speak.

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