Summer Reading: Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan Novels

August 3, 2015
by Jessica Wichmann

When I learned that Laura Lippman was going to serve as the honorary chair for the Maryland Humanities Council’s One Maryland One Book program this year, I got the final push I needed to start her popular Tess Monaghan series as my summer reading.

For years, I had been hearing from fellow discerning readers that this series would appeal to me on several levels. One: it features a female journalist-turned-private investigator, and I always prefer a female protagonist, especially one in a stereotypically male role. Two: the series serves as a sort of love letter to Baltimore, which I’ve called home for close to a decade now. And three: it’s filled with well-plotted twists and turns, as any good crime novels worth their salt should be.

It turns out my fellow readers were right – I love this series. I started on Baltimore Blues, the first book in the series, on a Saturday. By the following Friday I was frantically refreshing my library’s e-book site to see if it was my turn to read the third book in the series. A month later, I’ve already read the first seven Tess Monaghan books. Patience is not a virtue for me when it comes to reading.

Each novel I’ve read features complex cases that tackle universal themes like greed, love, and power. However, Lippman’s complicated yet lovable protagonist Tess Monaghan is definitely the series highlight. Far from two-dimensional, Tess is a stubborn know-it-all, but also loyal and compassionate.

And most importantly—to me, anyway— she’s funny.

“For the first time in more than two years, she had a full-time job and a full-time boyfriend. Her life might not have the party-all-the-time euphoria of a beer commercial, but it was definitely edging into International Coffee territory.” (Charm City, Tess Monaghan Novel Book 2)

In my favorite book in the series so far, Butchers Hill, Tess investigates a decades-old murder that delves into the thorny issues of race relations and class warfare, difficult topics for a popular series to tackle well, but ones that are impossible to ignore when your books are set in Baltimore. The investigation in Butchers Hill takes privileged Tess into a part of Baltimore with which she thinks she has no connection, working with an African-American client with whom she thinks she has nothing in common, and upends her expectations, as well as the reader’s.

Oddly enough, I may be alone in my admiration of this particular novel in the series. Lippman said in the afterword to Butchers Hill, reissued this June after the original 1998 release: “I don’t know what to make of the fact that my most commercially successful books have nothing to do with race. I hope it’s a meaningless coincidence.”

While the spot-on social commentary and appealing main character keep me reading, I would be lying if I didn’t say that part of the allure of the series is playing “spot-the-places-I’ve-been” in Baltimore (and throughout Maryland) while I’m reading. We all like to see ourselves in literature, right? And it’s not often I read a series that takes place in Baltimore, especially one that ventures beyond the Inner Harbor. Lippman’s Tess Monaghan represents that delicate balance between attachment and exasperation in her relationship with Baltimore and its residents; only a true Baltimorean like Lippman could express this unique dichotomy.

“She preferred the view to the east, the smokestacks and the neon red Domino sugar sign, turning her back to downtown and the city’s celebrated waterfront. Tess had little use for that part of Baltimore, which had been reinvented as a tourist haven. To her way of thinking it wasn’t much different from the old strip bars, which let people in for free, then jacked up the prices for everything else.” (Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan Novel Book 1)

Substance, humor, and hometown pride: what more could you want out of your summer reading? Join me in taking on the challenge of reading all 12 Tess Monaghan novels by summer’s end – it’s the kind of challenge the competitive Tess Monaghan wouldn’t be able to resist.

And once you’re done reading, come see Laura Lippman introduce the 2015 One Maryland One Book Author Daniel James Brown at the Baltimore Book Festival on Sunday, September 27! More details will be shared here on Wednesday— stay tuned!