Written by Laura Lippman — If you hadn’t been paying attention, it would be easy enough to miss the fact that Laura Lippman has written a series featuring private detective Tess Monaghan since the late 90s. In recent years, Lippman’s perhaps been better known for her standalone novels, including After I’m Gone, What the Dead Know and Every Secret Thing, which was filmed last year with Fargo’s Frances McDormand as producer.
Now the ‘accidental PI’ from Baltimore is back in her first full-length novel in seven years. UK publisher Faber & Faber has also issued the first eight books in the Tess Monaghan series as ebooks at bargain prices, so it’s a good time to discover this detective. In Hush Hush, the 12th book in the series, Monaghan’s life has been transformed by her three-year-old daughter, Carla Scout (a nod to To Kill a Mockingbird). Her partner works nights running a bar and music venue, so Monaghan – like any working mother – has to juggle her work and parental responsibilities.
While Tess feels guilty about how she’s bringing up her daughter it’s nothing compared to her latest case, a terrifying example of how motherhood can turn to horror. On a searing day in August, Melisandre Dawes deliberately left her baby daughter to die in the baking heat of her car while she sat by the river. If the older sisters, Alanna and Ruby, had not been on a school trip they might have died too.
It was a notorious family tragedy that had Melisandre compared to Medea, the character in Greek mythology who avenged her husband’s betrayal by slaying her own children. Having been able to plea criminal insanity and receive treatment, Melisandre left the country – and her daughters’ lives – after a settlement with her husband, who has since remarried.
It’s 12 years on and Melisandre, an independently wealthy woman and formidable ex-lawyer, is back in Baltimore where she’s funding a documentary about her own case. She’s determined to try and renew contact with her daughters, though a planned reunion is called off when her personal trainer is poisoned in a hotel suite. It seems the dose was meant for Melisandre, a hated figure for many in the city. She’s also been sent anonymous notes by someone who knows an awful lot about her past.
Tess and stoical ex-cop Sandy are called in by Tyner Gray (a lawyer who’s a regular character in the series) to protect Melisandre, who happens to be an old friend. Tyner’s now married to Kitty, who runs the bookshop where Tess, her niece, once worked. Tess actually began her career as a journalist but ended up as a private detective following the decline of newspapers in Baltimore.
Tess is a sharp-witted and resourceful character who feels like a real person with family, friends and colleagues as well as domestic disasters, such as the occasion her daughter has a public tantrum having discarded her underwear. Lippman is fascinated by how her characters live day-to-day, which makes them leap off the page. She’s also bold enough to switch narrative perspectives in a way that builds suspense and enriches this story, as well as including transcripts from the Melisandre’s documentary in progress.
As a former journalist, Lippman’s accurately captured the working of the media (all too rarely the case in crime novels) and she’s just as confident with the intricacies of the legal process. The real success of this novel, though, is its honest portrayal of motherhood within an intricate plot that takes you steadily deeper into the secrets and lies of a wealthy American family. “Being a mother was like being trapped in the first 15 minutes of a horror film,” is one character’s take on the perpetual anxiety of caring for a baby.
With its exploration of parenthood, Hush Hush is not a typical crime novel and it may not suit readers in search of page-turning escapism. But once the story has you in its grip, the chilling case, precision plotting and multi-layered narrative will convince you that Laura Lippman is one of the finest US crime writers at work today.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 5 Stars