Laura Lippman began her crime-writing career while working as a journalist, including 12 years at the Baltimore Sun (which also employed David Simon, creator of The Wire and Lippman’s husband). Her eighth standalone novel, After I’m Gone, was recently published in paperback and this month she returns to her series detective, Tess Monaghan, in Hush Hush. We caught up with Laura to talk about the accidental PI, motherhood and her first movie adaptation.
In Hush Hush, Tess Monaghan, now a stressed mother with a young daughter, takes on a case involving a woman who allowed her baby to die in horrific circumstances. Was the psychology of motherhood a subject you were keen to explore?
Very keen. I became a mom five years ago and I was surprised by how judged I felt all the time, for the smallest things. I couldn’t help wondering what it would feel like to be a mother who had done something truly horrible, even if the court decided to find her not guilty because she was suffering from postpartum psychosis at the time.
Tess has been around for almost two decades (though has only aged by half that on the page). What keeps you coming back to her as a character?
I think I’ll keep coming back to Tess as long as she has stories to tell, stories that are distinctly hers. She’s been a very satisfying companion all these years, given that we agree on almost everything.
Her investigations are often depicted within the context of the law and the media in Baltimore. Do you think those elements enrich the narrative of a crime novel and add to the realism?
I hope so. I try to get everything right, down to the ingredients in a special kind of Baltimore cookie, which play a pivotal part in Hush Hush.
Tess started out as a journalist before becoming an ‘accidental detective’. How did journalism help you as a crime writer? Did you realise how prophetic your debut, Baltimore Blues (1997), would be in its description of the decline of newspapers?
Being a journalist has helped me be professional as a crime novelist – making my deadlines, working in an organised, disciplined way. I wish I could say that I was extremely prescient about newspapers, but it was quite the opposite. When I left the business in 2001, I thought it would be robust for quite a while.
Your books are an alternative depiction of Baltimore to that of The Wire, which you appeared in very briefly. What makes it such a strong setting for crime stories – and is its reputation deserved?
Baltimore does have a high murder rate, so the reputation is at least partially deserved. But it’s also just extremely coincidental that The Wire was set in Baltimore; the show really could have taken place in any second-tier city in the United States.
Are there any Tess tourists who check out the scenes from the books?
Yes and they sometimes find Tess’s house, which is a very real place. Luckily, the owners are quite nice about it.
Are the standalone novels an opportunity to explore a certain issue or era? And has the variety made you a better writer?
I certainly want to think that going back and forth between the series is a kind of writerly cross-training. With a long-running series, the world is very well defined, so the stand-alones give me a chance to do some things I can’t do in the Tess books. Play with time, go a little darker.
You’ve recently had your first movie adaptation. Are you happy with the results and how was the experience?
I was extremely happy with the results. When I saw the film of Every Secret Thing [pictured] at the Tribeca Film Festival, any criticisms I had were for the source material. And it was a terrific experience overall. It took 10 years, though, from option to final cut. A true labour of love on the part of the people who made it, primarily Frances McDormand, who optioned the book and produced the film.
Has there been any talk of the Tess Monaghan books being adapted for TV or film?
There’s always talk! The Tess books have been optioned for television two or three times, and got very, very close on the last time. But I’ve come to believe that this is a project I should do. I need to sit down and write the pilot and the so-called show bible. Of course, that means finding the time to do more writing, which is tricky these days.
What’s next for Laura Lippman? Any chance of a book set in London or the UK, seeing as there are some London references in Hush Hush?
Tess is such a homebody, it’s hard to imagine her in the UK. Possibly Ireland, though. It occurs to me she might have family there.
Read our review of Hush Hush, available now as an ebook and published as a paperback original on 2 April. The first eight Tess Monaghan novels have been reissued as ebooks by Faber & Faber.