In Big Trouble
by Laura Lippman
Published by Avon Twilight
342 pages, 1999
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
Am I in the wrong place, or what? As much as I love fictional private eyes, Laura Lippman's In Big Trouble, featuring 30-ish rookie gumshoe Tess Monaghan, is definitely not my type of book. Uh-uh. No way. It's way too soft and gooey at the center, even if the outside is suitably crunchy.
The catch is that Tess is definitely my kind of gal.
I dunno. Normally, I'm as manly as the next joe -- a red-blooded, beer-drinking, he-man kinda guy, whose taste in fiction runs to hard-boiled novels about square-jawed men and hard-as-nails women, all of them fighting the good fight on those mean streets they seem required to go down, neither tarnished nor afraid. (I think that's in the standard P.I. writer's contract.)
But here's Tess, Lippman's former Baltimore reporter-turned-private eye. She wears her heart on her sleeve, and she's always going on about her feelings. She's even been known to cry, for God's sake! It's not that Tess isn't suited for her line of work, or even that she's not tough enough, in a way that has nothing to do with muscles. It's just that, at times she's such a... well, a girl.
In Big Trouble finds Tess, in full Betty Cooper mode, hot on the trail of Ed ("Crow") Ransome, her guitarist ex-boyfriend (ex-lover sounds almost too grown-up for the vaguely Teen Romance subplot here). He has sent her a mysterious newspaper clipping that's either a cry for help or a really bad joke. Its partial headline reads: "In Big Trouble." Unsure whether she should even become involved with Crow again, Tess allows herself to be convinced by his parents to put her beloved Baltimore in the rearview and go find him. It seems good ol' Crow has gotten himself mixed up with a new girlfriend (think Veronica Lodge) and a little bit of murder. It's like an Archie Comics version of The Long Goodbye.
But though Tess is no hard-boiled hero, she has a worldview at least as sharp as many of her harder-edged contemporaries. Hers just happens to be a world populated by real people, not only the darker-than-thou stock cops and robbers who fill so much of modern crime fiction. Consider this scene from the book:
"The emergency room at the county hospital was filled with the usual... detritus. Children who had fallen on broken bottles, men who had fought over the stupid things men fight over, pregnant women who had gone into premature labor."
As cynical as she tries to be, there's an intriguing air of almost-innocence and vulnerability about Tess. Watching her mature and learn the ropes, seeing her slowly release her "inner P.I.," has been a hoot, so far. Most eyes, male and female, are just too damn cocky; they seem to have arrived fully formed. Tess' doubts and mistakes (and she's capable of some real doozies!) have humanized her, without jerking the stories to a halt with ponderous, existentialist browbeating sessions or lectures on political correctness. (There are enough private eyes covering that territory as it is.)
Another part of Tess' appeal is that she's a woman who happens to be a private eye, not a private eye who happens to be a woman. Many fictional women eyes introduced during the late 1970s, early 80s seemed to exist mostly as knee-jerk responses to male P.I.s. They veered toward a certain high-minded seriousness, which didn't allow for much humor: satire without the yucks. Too often they behaved like Spenser with breasts. This may have struck a sympathetic chord with many readers, but the characters themselves didn't appear to be having much fun.
On the other hand, Tess is fun. Unapologetically hedonistic, she's no stranger to suds, and she has been known to cop a joint and engage in casual mattress pounding now and then. Hell, she's even been spotted eating red meat! And I have to admit to being partial to party girls, especially when they're as intelligent and funny as Tess is. She's got a bit of a smart-ass mouth on her, that one, and a quick and agile brain, even if it is crammed with some pretty useless knowledge (perfect for the trivia-obsessed society in which we live).
Sure, she may do the obligatory jogging and keeping-in-shape stuff (I think that's in the contract rider for female P.I.s), but not because she's a joyless, obsessive health-and-fitness freak. No, Tess does it because it allows her to do something she truly loves: competitive rowing.
Tess is very much a part of her time, caught in the wake of both the baby boomers and Generation X. It's a relief to read about this detective who isn't an anachronism retreating into bourbon and old jazz records. She may read James M. Cain and be able to spout Cole Porter lyrics, but the pop-culture reference points in this book are decidedly modern: everything from Homicide to The Beverly Hillbillies, slasher films to the Beatles' White Album, Dashiell Hammett to Nora Ephron. Tess comes by her rock 'n' roll heart naturally: Her creator thanks everyone from Willie Nelson to Elvis Costello in the author's notes. There's a great scene in this novel in which Tess and a fellow music buff argue about Buddy Holly's premature death. The conclusion? "God doesn't know shit about music."
The thing with Tess, however, is that she's neither as smart nor as tough as she thinks she is, yet she still somehow always manages to be smarter and tougher than the reader thinks she is. It's -- God help me -- an endearing trait.
And like author Lippman, Tess adores Baltimore. In this series' previous three installments (Baltimore Blues, Charm City and Butchers Hill), Maryland's largest city came across as a substantive and essential character -- not always a nice character, but a real one, both to the reader and to Tess. All of her life changes have occurred there. As Trouble kicks off, for instance, Tess is doing surveillance work at a local hot-sheet motel, the Enchanted Castle Motor Court, on Route 40, which she suddenly recognizes as the place where she lost her virginity.
Unfortunately, we see too little of Baltimore in this new novel, which finds Tess deep in the heart of Texas. Apparently, Crow had been trying to make a go of it in the ultra-competitive Austin music scene before he disappeared. Tess tracks him down pretty quickly a few miles down the road in San Antonio, only to lose him just as fast. Some unnecessarily woo-woo melodramatics (she "senses his presence"? Please!) are more than made up for by her as-real-as-it-gets reaction to finding a corpse at one of Crow's last known addresses. Soon enough, Crow and Tess are up to their Charm City necks in San Antonio politics, gossip, scandal and various murders, as well as some deep, dark secrets from 30 years ago that, in Ross Macdonald fashion, just won't stay buried.
The Lone Star State locales, most notably San Antonio, are colorfully drawn, and it's amusing to see Tess fumbling around in strange cities, unable to rely on her usual circle of friends and family. Not that she isn't quick to develop new contacts. Lippman offers some great comic relief in the character of Mrs. Nguyen, the Vietnamese owner of the no-tell motel in which Tess is staying. A Spanish soap opera junkie, Mrs. Nguyen is coerced into babysitting Tess' dog Esskay, who the detective has improbably brought along on this case. And then there's Rick Trejo, a slick Hispanic lawyer, and his blonde, Nordic goddess girlfriend, gallery owner Kristina Johannsen, a mismatched couple with a relationship that seems founded on constant bickering.
But the mean streets of San Antonio are simply not the mean streets of Baltimore that Tess knows and loves. Like Tess, the reader never really settles in, and the story ultimately suffers for it. So, while Texas is a nice place to visit, I read In Big Trouble wishing that Tess would get back to where she once belonged.
Laura Lippman has been a reporter for over 15 years, the last six or so as a feature writer for The Baltimore Sun. In Tess Monaghan, she has created a detective whose voice is distinctive, even original. That originality comes from an author who has things to say, as opposed to someone who has to stick a finger in the air to see which way the market winds are blowing before ever writing a word.
Her efforts have paid off: After four paperback originals, and after receiving both good press and several Edgar and Shamus awards, Lippman's next book, The Sugar House, is due to be published in hardcover in September 2000.
Let's face it. In my eyes, Tess can do no wrong, or at least little I won't ultimately forgive her for. I can't explain it. I think it's love. Just don't tell the guys... | January 2000
KEVIN BURTON SMITH is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television and other media. He lives in Montreal, where he's happily married -- a fact that his wife is more than willing to point out to him.