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Flawed but Readable Series Debut
on January 28, 2008
I have to admit that I don't read very many American mystery/crime writers, and those I do tend to be overwhelmingly male (my two favorites are probably George Pelecanos and Elmore Leonard, just to give you a sense of my taste). And when I have sampled female-written series (Patricia Cornwell and Janet Evanovich are the two that spring to mind), they have utterly failed to connect with me. Nonetheless, Lippman's Tess Monaghan series came highly recommended to me, and the nearby Baltimore setting was a big draw.
This first in the series finds heroine Tess teetering on the brink of 30, and somewhat adrift following the closing down of the newspaper she worked at. She lives in a cheap apartment above her aunt's bookstore, and barely makes ends meet working as a clerk in the store and doing an odd job for an uncle. Her personal life is equally in flux, as she doesn't exactly have a slew of friends, and her love life is vacant, save for the random booty-call by her ex-boyfriend who cheats on his current girlfriend with Tess. The one constant in her life is a daily crack-of-dawn appointment with her racing shell and the Patapsco river.
This daily exercise has led to a friendship with another avid rower, Darryl Paxton. One day he hires her to check up on the activities of his type-A fiancee, and thus Tess embarks on her first session of amateur sleuthing. However, what starts as a fairly simple tailing job turns into a high profile murder case, as the fiancee's high-profile boss at a prestigious law firm has his head bashed in. Darryl is charged with the murder, and Tess is put to work by his defense lawyer as a gopher/investigator. Of course, when a lawyer is killed, one has to start digging into his past cases and soon Tess is following all kinds of threads in an attempt to clear Darryl.
The book definitely feels like a debut -- it starts sluggishly and takes far too long to pick up speed, as Lippman struggles with pacing. Many of the supporting cast are archetypes (the brassy aunt, the ambitious journalist, the patrician lawyer, the breezily confidant best friend) rather than full-figured characters, and few are colorful or engaging enough to want to spend more time with. Tess herself is somewhat generically flawed and feisty character, rather more clueless and prone to blundering than seems reasonable. However one can see glimmers of what could become a rich series character with further development.
The writing is also uneven when it comes to the various relationships. For example, Tess and Rock's easy friendship is handled quite well, however her reaction to the killing of someone close to her doesn't seem to distress her nearly as much as one might expect. The plotting is also somewhat uneven, as at times the reader will be three steps ahead of Tess and grow weary of waiting for the amateur to catch up, while near the end, events start to unfold much more rapidly and with more surprises. Many reviewers have lauded the Baltimore setting as amazing, and while I found the details all quite accurate, they never felt like much more than deliberate local color. Of course, I'm fairly familiar with Baltimore, so perhaps it's all a little more fascinating for others. In any event, it's not a great debut, but not a bad one either, and I'll probably read the next two to see if it gets better.