Tess Monaghan’s life — like the recessed Baltimore of the late 1990’s in which she lives — is stagnant. On hold. In her late 20’s, her career as a reporter sputtered and stalled when the newspaper employing her ceased publication and she was not hired by its competitor, the Beacon Light. She ekes out a living by renting quarters above her eccentric and free-spirited Aunt Kitty’s niche bookstore and working odd jobs, including for her uncle (who is secretly paying her with his own funds, rather than those of his government employer). Tess is beginning to wonder if she still wants to pursue a career in journalism, although she isn’t pursuing any other career options. She is equally indecision when it comes to romance, having settled into a comfortable yet unsatisfying friends with benefits arrangement with colleague Jonathan Ross, an investigative reporter with the Beacon Light.
The only constants in Tess’s life are her commitment to rowing every morning and her friendship with Darryl “Rock” Paxton, a researcher obsessed with the sport, with whom she eats breakfast each day following their workouts. When Rock tells Tess that his beautiful fiancé, Ava Hill, a would-be lawyer with Baltimore’s preeminent law firm who can’t seem to pass the bar exam, has been even more aloof and mysterious of late than is typical for her, Tess agrees to accept Rock’s generous offer of compensation in exchange for dabbling as an amateur private investigator.
Tess has barely begun her sleuthing when she stumbles upon Ava’s connection to the notorious Michael Abramowitz, an attorney with a reputation for earning the wrong kind of headlines. When Abramowitz is soon murdered and Rock is accused of committing the crime, Tess must solve the crime, thereby proving her friend’s innocence.
Originally published in 1997, Baltimore Blues launched Laura Lippman’s successful series of Tess Monaghan mysteries, the twelfth of which, Hush Hush, will be released on February 24, 2015. Introduced to readers for the first time, Tess is already a fully developed character, replete with idiosyncrasies, empathetic character flaws, charm, and a supporting cast of fascinating characters, including the ever-present and most predominant one, Tess’s hometown of Baltimore with whom she has a classic love-hate relationship.
As readers get to know Tess for the first time, she is revealed as a product of the town in which she grew up: equal parts gritty and endearing. She is conflicted, often engaging in activities and behaviors that she knows are not in her own best interests, yet unable to summon the courage and power to steer her life in a different direction. She falls back on what is comfortable and familiar, even as loved ones and circumstances demonstrate that other options are available. All of those factors not only propel this story forward, but set the tone for the sequels to come. Tess is a walking conundrum to which readers, especially women, can relate, sustaining interest in her future — the choices she will make and the lessons she will learn along the way — even as this first chapter of her saga comes to a close.
Even in this, her debut novel, Lippman leads readers on the race to the killer’s identity through a maze of missed clues, dead-end leads, and distractions as elegantly as her description of the confusing mish-mash of Baltimore streets Tess travels on her way to finding Abramowitz’s killer. Lippman unravels the mystery at a steady, measured pace, expertly utilizing a compelling assortment of characters to keep readers guessing until the very end. It is only then, when all of seemingly disjointed pieces of the puzzle suddenly fit together, that her intricately and seamlessly woven plot reveals itself in a way that even the most astute reader will likely find surprising.
I recommend Baltimore Blues as enthusiastically as the other works by Lippman I have reviewed: