I know Laura Lippman is quite a successful writer, but I’m the only person I know who reads her work, so let’s start here: if you haven’t already, you need to read Laura Lippman. She’s one of the best crime writers currenly out there and her series of books focusing on accidental PI Tess Monaghan is very well-suited for binge reading. I once managed two and a half in one day. Also, Lippman’s married to David ‘The Wire’ Simon, which I normally wouldn’t bring up, except she does it herself. Idris Elba has a cameo, even.
Yet Tess – booze-loving, quick-on-her-feet thinking, perpetually hungry Tess – has been absent for far too long. Barring the occasional cameo in other books or short story collections, there hasn’t been a full-length Tess novel since 2008, so when I discovered that Hush Hush, Lippman’s latest book, was bringing her back, I was thrilled. This review, in other words, may be slightly biased.
Unlike other Tess novels, this one doesn’t exclusively take place from her perspective; other characters get a say, too. Interestingly, even the guilty ones do, before we know they are guilty. This may seem gimmicky, but it’s executed marvellously.
The plot: on a hot day in August 2002, a woman with the somewhat unlikely name of Melisandre Dawes puts her two month old baby daughter in her car, drives up to the shore and sits by the water while her daughter dies in the overheated car. She is acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity and leaves her family, fleeing for South Africa. In 2014, she returns, trying to pick up where she left off and trying to mend the broken bonds with her surviving two daughters, spiteful Alanna and pensive Ruby. She hires Tess to provide additional security, but Melisandre is a force of nature and Tess, less forgiving of her misdeeds now that she has a child herself, doesn’t trust her. Others, such as Tess’s uncle and erstwhile employer Tyner, are quicker to fall for her charms.
Melisandre is not the best character Lippman has ever written; she’s another one in a long line of beautiful Medeas who blind men with their beauty and bravura, leaving a trail of shattered women in her wake. More interesting are the responses others have to her; Tyner’s wife, the normally self-assured Kitty, feels her husband slipping from her grasp, whereas Tess finds herself barely able to cope with Melisandre’s scheming; meanwhile Harmony, the young documentary maker Melisandre has hired to brush up her image, senses she’s being used as a pawn early on but simply doesn’t know how to stop it. Melisandre’s teen daughters have no idea how to behave around her except to get as far away as possible. The dynamics are interesting because it’s not so much about whether Melisandre is guilty or not, but about how the characters around her perceive her, and how she uses this perception to gain the upper hand.
Maybe this is just me – I’m a notorious literature snob – but I find it hard to find good thrillers and detective novels. The language bugs me and the characters are either flat as a pancake or annoyingly larger than life and more often than not, they’re a poor imitation of life. I’m pretty sure the characters in Lippman’s books aren’t all that realistic, either – but they feel real enough. Moreover, what makes this particular story so good is that the mystery isn’t straightforward. Clues pop up that have nothing to do with the primary mystery; notes are being left, characters contradict themselves. Some of the tangents the book goes off on matter, others don’t; people are people, they don’t always have a motive.
I’ve missed Tess a lot. The Tess in Hush Hush is not the Tess we read about in the first couple of books. She’s grown up – a mother herself now, her judgement of Melisandre influenced by her own fears and insecurities about motherhood, more cynical, less free spirited. There are no more stories about late-night martinis or whirlwind romances, but laments on strained relationships, demanding full-time jobs, and the fatigue that comes with having a young child. In that sense, I felt a little disappointed. Lippman’s standalone novels always have a rather melancholy feel to it, and so does this book. But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is a very good reason for bringing Tess back. Tess has matured. I’ve watched her stumble through her first years as PI, start a successful business, fall in and out of love. Tess is no Stephanie Plum; Tess learns.