(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Laura Lippman follows in the footsteps of Sue Grafton , Sara Paretsky , and Marcia Muller , who broke new ground in the 1980’s by introducing female private investigators into an exclusively male territory. Lippman describes her series character, Tess Monaghan, as a second-generation feminist detective who, unlike her predecessors, Kinsey Millhone, V. I. Warshawski, and Sharon McCone, need not perform better than her male counterparts to pursue a successful career. In fact, when Tess is first introduced, she is an unemployed journalist who undertakes a surveillance operation as a favor for a friend; Lippman has referred to her character as “the accidental detective.” It is not until the third novel of the series that Tess obtains her license and sets up her own business. Neither her career choice nor her independence alienates her from the larger society. In contrast to the hard-boiled loner Kinsey Millhone, Tess enjoys family, friends, and house pets, and unlike V. I. Warshawski, she does not agonize over retaining her independence within romantic relationships. Having come of age in a culture more receptive to female autonomy, Tess is better equipped than her older sisters-in-crime to balance professional and personal interests. Lippman keeps her character on a human scale so that her problems are ordinary ones; her missteps may lead to heartache but not to melodrama.

Generally regarded as social realism, the Monaghan series encompasses a range of contemporaneous concerns, yet the novels do not foreground social issues at the expense of character, and the tone is never shrill. Lippman writes in third-person limited, restricting point of view to Tess and allowing her voice to dominate. The character’s sense of humor keeps the writing entertaining without trivializing serious subject matter.

Lippman’s experience as a reporter serves her well in this series. She gives Tess a remarkably similar background to her own, one that provides the character with the skills and resources to succeed as an investigator. One of the strengths of the series is how convincing Tess is as she tracks down information from public records and as she “interviews” contacts. She is comfortable with technology, but she does not rely on computer wizardry for answers.

Overall, Lippman has produced a body of fiction that, while staying within the boundaries of the genre, possesses a true-to-life quality. She frequently bases plots on actual cases; in addition her intimate knowledge of Baltimore, where all but one of her books is set, allows her to place her characters in well-defined social and cultural contexts. Realism is also reflected in her plot resolution, which resists oversimplification and pat, happy endings.

In keeping with the genre, many of...

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