In a city where someone is murdered almost every day, attorney Michael Abramowitz's death should be just another statistic. But the slain lawyer's notoriety—and his taste for illicit midday trysts—makes the case front-page news in every local paper except the Star, which crashed and burned before Abramowitz did.
A former Star reporter who knows every inch of this town—from historic Fort McHenry to the crumbling projects of Cherry Hill—now-unemployed journalist Tess Monaghan also knows the primary suspect: cuckolded fiancé Darryl "Rock" Paxton. The time is ripe for a career move, so when rowing buddy Rock wants to hire her to do some unorthodox snooping to help clear his name, Tess agrees. But there are lethal secrets hiding in the Charm City shadows. And Tess's own name could end up on the ever-expanding list of Baltimore dead.
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.
From the city’s Inner Harbor and Camden Yards tourist areas to center city to all sorts of outlying areas, readers are placed in Baltimore: 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 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 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.
Baltimore Blues is an interesting character study and an engaging mystery against a distinctive Baltimore backdrop.
About Laura Lippman:
Laura Lippman was a reporter for twenty years, including twelve years at The (Baltimore) Sun. She began writing novels while working fulltime and published seven books about “accidental PI” Tess Monaghan before leaving daily journalism in 2001. Her work has been awarded the Edgar ®, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe and Barry awards. She also has been nominated for other prizes in the crime fiction field, including the Hammett and the Macavity. She was the first-ever recipient of the Mayor’s Prize for Literary Excellence and the first genre writer recognized as Author of the Year by the Maryland Library Association.
Ms. Lippman grew up in Baltimore and attended city schools through ninth grade. After graduating from Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md., Ms. Lippman attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her other newspaper jobs included the Waco Tribune-Herald and the San Antonio Light.