Well, shortly after enjoying Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” a couple of months ago, I went online to look for other books by the author and ended up buying a second-hand copy of Lippman’s 1997 detective novel “Baltimore Blues”. And, although I’d originally planned to read it several weeks ago, I got distracted by other books and only happened to rediscover it by accident a couple of days before writing this review.
So, let’s take a look at “Baltimore Blues”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS (but I’ll avoid revealing whodunnit).
The novel begins in Baltimore, with ex-journalist Tess Monaghan getting up early to go rowing on the Patapsco river. Ever since she was made redundant by the Star and has had to take up a few strange odd jobs, these early-morning rowing trips have become part of her daily routine. And, like every morning, she meets her fitness fanatic friend called Darryl “Rock” Paxton on the water. He insists on racing her to a nearby bridge, before suddenly bursting into tears afterwards.
His fiance, Ava, has been acting strangely recently and he offers to pay Tess to follow her and learn what is going on. Since she needs the money, Tess agrees and starts tailing Ava. After a while, she begins to suspect that Ava is having an affair with prominent local lawyer Michael Abramowitz and confronts her about it. Ava then manages to get her side of the story across to Darryl before Tess can talk to him. And, although Tess is annoyed by this, she considers the matter solved.
The next morning, Tess reads the local paper at her aunt’s bookshop and is shocked to find that Darryl has been accused of murdering Abramowitz. Since Darryl protests his innocence in the matter and because the head of the local sailing club – Tyner- is also his defence lawyer, he asks for Tess’ help with investigating the matter…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though the story takes a while to get going, it is a fairly atmospheric and compelling detective novel with hints of both the legal thriller and noir genres too 🙂
So, I should probably start by talking about the detective elements. Since Tess is an unofficial detective, these mostly consist of interviewing people, studying documents and finding inventive ways to sneak into places. She’s also sometimes able to use her connections from her time as a journalist to help her out with various pieces of the case too. Not only does the “unofficial investigator” thing add a bit of suspense to the story, but it is also slightly evocative of the classic private eyes of the noir genre too.
This connection to the noir genre is also enhanced by the nature of the case itself – which also includes a few smaller mysteries, morally ambiguous characters and the kind of sordid web of criminality (including some fairly dark and/or “gritty” subject matter) that you’d expect from the genre. Even so, this isn’t really a traditional noir detective story – but there are definitely some hints of the noir genre during a few parts of the story.
Plus, as mentioned earlier, this novel also includes some elements from the legal thriller genre too. Since the main focus of the story is building a defence case for Darryl, there’s a fair amount of time dedicated to trying to handle the media coverage of the case or trying to find holes in the evidence against him, in addition to worries about whether various pieces of evidence will be admissable or not. Likewise, since the victim is a lawyer, this also adds to the story’s legal thriller elements too.
When it is at it’s best, these legal thriller elements result in some fairly dramatic set pieces (eg: Tess finding a way to distract a group of court reporters etc…) and a brilliantly realistic sense of ambiguity, where the focus isn’t on impartial investigation – but on exonerating a friend who may or may not be guilty. On the flipside, these legal thriller elements can sometimes slow down the story a bit at times, and can seem a little abstract or contrived in comparison to the much more interesting detection-based parts of the novel. Yes, the legal obstacles in the story add a bit of extra suspense or give Tess an excuse to come up with a clever scheme, but they do slow the story down a bit.
The novel is also fairly atmospheric too 🙂 If you’re a fan of movies, TV shows, stories etc… set in 1990s America, then this novel will give you a chance to visit this interesting time and place. In addition to lots of interesting descriptions of Baltimore, this novel also has a fairly distinctive “atmosphere” to it too thanks to both several of the characters and a surprising number of scenes related to food, books, sailing and/or bars. Although some of this atmosphere and drama can slow the story down a bit (especially in the earlier parts), it gives everything a bit more personality and sets this story apart from a typical gritty crime novel.
In terms of the characters, they’re fairly well-written. Although many of the background characters are a quirky mixture of realistic and stylised, Tess is a really interesting protagonist who not only has to grapple with her precarious financial situation and the attitudes of various members of her family, but also still hasn’t quite got over the fact that she is no longer a reporter. She has realistic flaws, quirks and a real sense of personality that make her a fairly compelling and sympathetic character.
Plus, since this novel comes from the 1990s, her opinions are also a much more nuanced and realistic mixture of liberal and conservative ideas than you’d typically find in a modern novel. This also allows for a certain level of subtle irony too. For example, one of the things that really annoys Tess is when other people base their identities around victimhood – yet, her own life has become defined by losing her job as a reporter.
Likewise, in classic film noir fashion, there are also quite a few morally ambiguous and/or downright villainous characters, who will keep you guessing throughout the novel. Plus, one amusing character-related coincidence is that Tess’ on-off boyfriend also shares a name with a well-known British TV presenter, which adds some unintentional comedy to these scenes if you’ve ever watched TV over here.
In terms of the writing, this novel is also fairly well-written. The novel’s third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to add a bit of pace and realism to the story, whilst also being descriptive and formal enough to add atmosphere, character and depth to everything. Even though this writing style can occasional slow the story down a bit, it means that the novel contains the best elements of both crime/detective thriller fiction and literary fiction.
As for length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 291 pages in length (albeit with slightly smaller print), this novel really made me miss the days when this sort of length was standard for novels 🙂 The novel’s pacing is also more like a traditional detective story or thriller, with everything gradually rising in intensity throughout the story. Although this means that some early-middle parts of the story can feel a bit slow, they really help to set up the more compelling, eventful and dramatic middle-late parts of the story 🙂
As for how this twenty-three year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. Not only do some elements of the story feel a lot more modern than movies/TV shows from 1997, but the story also has a very recognisable (albeit relatively subtle) “1990s” atmosphere to it, which really helps to add a lot of intrigue to the story. There are also a few amusingly ’90s moments too, such as when a character goes “on-line” to access a “data base”.
Plus, as hinted at earlier, the novel also comes from a more nuanced and less polarised era of history where creative works could easily be both liberal and conservative. This results in a less predictable and slightly grittier story with more complex characters, but may make some moments seem dated when read today.
All in all, this is a really good detective novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit slow to get started and doesn’t become seriously compelling until a little way into the story, but it is worth sticking with thanks to the intriguingly complex mystery, the atmosphere, personality and characters. Plus, if you’re a fan of 1990s America, then this novel is worth reading for the setting alone too 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.