When local literary sweetheart Laura Lippman releases a new Tess Monaghan whodunit, insider nods to our great and flawed city and long-established Monaghan idiosyncrasies (rubbing that scar on her knee) show up as often on the page as clues to the mystery du jour.
“Hush Hush” (Harper Collins), Lippman’s 12th Tess Monaghan mystery and the first one since 2011’s “The Girl in the Green Raincoat” (although the spunky sleuth made a brief appearance in last year’s stand-alone “After I’m Gone”), in which the P.I. was on bed rest with a surprise pregnancy, begins a new chapter in Monaghan’s life. Her daughter Carla Scout (Tess fans will guess the wee one’s eponym while lit lovers will know the middle moniker’s origin) is now 3 years old and although Monaghan hasn’t lost her moxie going up against the city’s criminal factor or society’s unrealistic beauty expectations, she now drives a minivan while questioning her life’s path—she was never very good at compromise. There’s a great scene where Carla Scout goes into major toddler break-down in the narrow few feet separating the liquor department from the other side of the grocery store at Eddie’s of Roland Park as mother and daughter face-off over their respective priorities: white wine and Pringles.
While pleasing loyalists with familiar locations and Baltimoranalia, Lippman has no fear of getting straight to the darkness that freaks people out: anonymous but knowing notes left in conspicuous spots, liars, adultery, bad mothers, really bad mothers, infanticide. And what’s scarier than the shit that goes down in your backyard?
Between mentions of Fells Point, Mount Vernon’s sorely missed Brass Elephant, and Hampden’s The Wine Source and Golden West (with an Elvis pancakes shout-out), Monaghan gets hired by the lawyer Tyner Gray who is also her uncle—he’s married to her Fells Point bookstore-owning aunt who runs Wirecon, a long-awaited nod from Lippman to her husband’s show. She initially does security detail on Gray’s rich and beautiful client, Melisandre Harris Dawes, with whom he shares a romantic past. After leaving her infant daughter in a car on a hot summer afternoon 12 years ago, Dawes was found not guilty of homicide by reason of insanity and has since lived overseas. Now back in Baltimore, she hired a semi-famous young director to film a documentary with a two-fold purpose: to examine how one re-enters society after being deemed insane by the courts and to record the very personal reconciliation with her two daughters, now teenagers who have had no contact with their mother for over a decade.
Lippman has some structural fun with a shifting time frame, subjective memory, and the reality of audiences hungry for morbidity with her narrative choice in the documentary storyline. As the main players in the death of the Dawes baby get questioned by the director, a story of what happened that summer unfolds via actual transcripts of the interviews on the page. The Dawes babysitter, a woman who talked to Dawes the morning she left her baby in the car in the Baltimore heat, and a family friend who happens to be a psychologist all have different takes on the crime; the two surviving daughters stay off camera but have their own versions of the past; and the father/ex-husband’s decisions regarding the filming heavily influence the project.
As Monaghan navigates working while under the influence of a mother’s guilt, exhaustion, and a newfound tenderness, she must also try to understand another mother’s motivation, mental health, and extreme actions while trying to solve and stop more criminal activity as the bodies pile up. Lippman tends to take extra care describing houses and surroundings, building up passages that play out visually: Monaghan’s now too-small-for-three-humans-plus-dogs domicile has been in so many scenes over the years (especially in “The Girl in the Green Raincoat”) that it’s easy to see. In this book, descriptions of the Dawes’ previous house in Bolton Hill as it stands empty, modern, and full of secrets reflects the family’s cold history, while Dawes’ temporary stay in Harbor East’s Four Seasons is as stylish and flawless as the 60-year-old character—pretty and moneyed.
“Hush Hush” is a story of how a highly dysfunctional family comes to terms with what they believe to be the truth of the baby’s death. And while Monaghan’s real job is to figure out who keeps committing crimes surrounding the mother’s return to Baltimore, she can’t help but hit on the book’s true mystery: whether the mom was crazy. And now that Monaghan herself has more at stake, it would be nice if Lippman put a little more on the line plot-wise and made her page-turners just a little heavier. There are only so many times the obvious choice is the most interesting one.