Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Well-written crime fiction series need, of course, to have strong plots and well-developed characters. But a sense of location helps, too, and can actually attract readers. Some series have a very strong and effective sense of place – so strong that readers feel they wouldn’t get lost if they were set down in the series’ location. That’s the kind of series Laura Lippman has created with her Tess Monaghan novels. Let me show you what I mean as we take a closer look today at Baltimore Blues, the first in the Tess Monaghan series.
Tess Monaghan is at what you might call loose ends. She’s a former newspaper reporter whose employer, the Star, has folded. The Star’s only competitor is the Beacon-Light, but that newspaper hasn’t hired her. So Monaghan has had to find other ways to make ends meet. She works part-time in a Baltimore bookshop owned by her Aunt Kitty, and lives in an apartment above the store. She also works part-time for her Uncle Donald, Baltimore’s Director of the Office for Fraud and Waste (a job not nearly as high-profile or important as the title would indicate). Part of Monaghan’s problem is that she hasn’t sorted out what she wants to do with her life, much to the dismay of her parents.
One day, Monaghan gets an unusual request from Darryl “Rock” Paxton, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and a friend Monaghan met through their common interest in rowing. Paxton’s worried that his fiancée Ava Hill may be in trouble. Ava won’t confide in him, and he wants to know what the trouble is. So he asks Monaghan to try to find out. At first, Monaghan is very reluctant. For one thing, she’s not a licensed private detective nor a police officer, so she doesn’t feel qualified. For another, she doesn’t want to get involved in Paxton’s personal business. As if that weren’t enough, she heartily dislikes Ava Hill, and thinks Paxton would be well rid of her. But, Paxton’s a friend, and Monaghan very much needs the money he’s willing to pay her. So she agrees to find out what she can.
Monaghan soon learns that Ava Hill has been having secret meetings with Michael Abramowitz, her boss at the law office where she works. It’s not long before Monaghan concludes that Hill and Abramowitz are having an affair. When Monaghan confronts Hill about what she’s found out, Hill claims that Abramowitz has been forcing her to sleep with him in exchange for help in passing the Maryland Bar Exam. Upset at this betrayal of her friend, Monaghan tells Paxton what she’s learned. That night, Michael Abramowitz is shot in his law office and it’s not long before Daryl Paxton is arrested for the crime. Paxton claims he isn’t guilty, and Monaghan wants to believe him, although she has her doubts. Before she knows it, Monaghan finds herself working for Paxton’s attorney to try to find out who else would have wanted to kill Michael Abramowitz. It turns out that there are several suspects. Abramowitz had defended some very unpleasant people whose victims resented him. There’s also Ava Hill, who might have killed her boss. And there are some powerful people whose secrets Abramowitz might have found out. In the end, Monaghan finds out the truth about Abramowitz’ murder, but not before there’s another death, and not before Monaghan herself almost becomes a victim.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the Baltimore setting is an extremely important element in this novel. From the city’s Inner Harbor and Camden Yards tourist areas to center city to all sorts of outlying areas, readers are placed unmistakeably in Baltimore:
“It was about eight miles from Joey’s rundown row house to the West Baltimore home of Frank Miles, the custodian who had discovered Abramowitz’ body. Statistically, it was a more dangerous place – a once-middle-class neighborhood undone by white flight, further undone by black flight. But Tess felt comfortable here. She had grown up not far away, a straight shot down Edmondson Avenue.”
All sorts of Baltimore restaurants, customs, politics and even speaking patterns are woven into the novel so that the reader feels the novel wouldn’t easily have taken place anywhere else.
The mystery itself also keeps the reader’s interest. Abramowitz was killed for a believable reason, and the second murder, too, is committed for a reason that makes sense. As Monaghan follows up the clues and puts the pieces together, we follow along and the conclusions that she draws are logical, given what she knows and finds out. We don’t know whodunit right from the start (at least I didn’t), but the clues lead to that person once they’re put together. The pacing and timing also help keep the reader focused on the mystery. The story moves quickly enough to stay engaging, and there are some moments of real suspense. But it doesn’t move at what you’d call breakneck speed, and there are enough quiet moments that we also get to know Tess Monaghan.
And Tess Monaghan (at least in my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do) is a likeable character. She’s got plenty of flaws and insecurities, and in many ways she’s at odds with herself. She’s feminine, but hardly dainty; she’s insecure, but not fearful; she’s smart and resourceful, but sometimes acts before she thinks things through. She’s loyal, too, and tries to do the right thing. Another important thing about Tess Monaghan is that she loves her hometown and couldn’t really imagine living and working anywhere but Baltimore. She’s an appealing sleuth whom it’s easy to root for as she tries to do her best for Paxton and straighten out her own life, too.
Teamwork and friendship play a role in this novel, too. Monaghan knows that she can’t find out all of the answers or do all of the work by herself. So she relies on help from people she knows, even though doing so makes her uncomfortable at times. For instance, at one point, she wants to get into Abramowitz’ office to get some information. For more than one reason, she knows she won’t be warmly welcomed there, so she decides to go at night. She reluctantly takes with her E.A. “Crow” Ransome, her aunt’s assistant, and that turns out to be a wise decision. She gets other valuable assistance from Jonathan Ross, star reporter of the Beacon Light, as well as help and important information from her Uncle Donald. This teamwork makes the story more realistic, since in real life, few cases are solved by just one person.
Although the novel is not exactly what you’d call light reading, there is an undertone of humour to it. For instance, at one point, Monaghan decides to pay an unannounced visit to Ava Hill. The only problem is, Hill’s apartment building is secured, and the only way to get onto the elevator to the apartment is to have a key. So Monaghan bluffs her way on to the elevator by telling another resident that she’s new in the building and studying opera. Unfortunately, it turns out that this resident is very knowledgeable about opera, and Monaghan ends up compounding what she thought was a “little white lie.” The other resident actually ends up asking for Monaghan’s autograph and she obliges – by writing a faked name.
Baltimore Blues is an interesting character study and an engaging mystery against a distinctive Baltimore backdrop. But what’s your view? Have you read Baltimore Blues? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 16 May/Tuesday 17 May – Whip Hand – Dick Francis
Monday 23 May/Tuesday 24 May – The Withdrawing Room – Charlotte MacLeod
Tuesday 31 May/Wednesday 1 June – The Stepford Wives – Ira Levin