Flawed characters keep Laura Lippman honest
Laura Lippman's crime fiction isn't torn from the headlines in quite the way one might expect from a former news reporter for the Baltimore Sun. In fact, Lippman's well-crafted, thought-provoking private eye series featuring Tess Monaghan, as well as her equally compelling stand-alone mysteries, tend to focus on the very people who don't make the headlines: the poor, the disenfranchised, the minorities and the young people who frequently fall through the sometimes gaping cracks in our human services.
Though she long ago clocked out of daily journalism, Lippman stays close to the poverty and social issues she used to cover by working at a Baltimore soup kitchen on weekends. It was there that she met the struggling teens that inspired Lloyd Jupiter, a homeless, 15-year-old African American who stumbles into very big trouble in Lippman's ninth Tess Monaghan adventure, No Good Deeds.
It is Tess' live-in boyfriend Crow who performs good deeds by delivering food to local food kitchens. On his rounds, he encounters Lloyd, who tries to jack him for $5 to change a flat tire that Crow suspects the teenager had caused just minutes before. Instead, Crow offers him shelter from the winter cold. Tess is wary of the troubled kid at her dinner table until, by chance, he indicates he has secret knowledge about the death of Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Youssef, whose recent murder has all the earmarks of an unofficial cover-up. When word of Lloyd's secret brings the feds, the DEA and the FBI down on Tess, Crow takes Lloyd into hiding in hopes of keeping him alive until the case is solved. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.
"This novel started out as a straight-up homage to Robert Parker's Early Autumn, in which Spenser takes this kid out into the country and they build a house together and he changes his life. I just loved that book," Lippman says. "But once I created Lloyd Jupiter, I just realized that it would be utterly false to solve all the problems in Lloyd's life."
Realism above all is central to Lippman's fiction, even if it means sacrificing the warm-fuzzy endings we all wish for.
"When you're 15, you find your parents embarrassing no matter what; imagine being 15 and your mom is a heroin addict who is nodding off next to you at the soup kitchen. I don't know how to say to that kid, well, just work harder, go to school and you'll be fine. I feel like that is just a callous lie in some ways," she says.
"We're asking these kids to be geniuses of survival. We don't expect every kid coming up in a poor neighborhood to have the amazing skills of a LeBron James, we don't view that as reasonable, but we do kind of ask or assume that they can be in the 99th percentile of survival ability. I was hoping in writing No Good Deeds that people would open their hearts just a little bit to just how difficult it is."
Lippman is equally committed to keeping Tess real.
"The joke in my household is that I like to write characters that are smaller than life," she says. "She's really flawed; she was always meant to be that, because personally, I don't like reading about perfect people. I don't know any, and if I did I would probably find them annoying. I didn't want Tess to be my fantasy projection. In some ways, I'm a lot smarter than Tess. I always wanted her to be realistic. She throws up in trash cans," Lippman laughs.
An interesting metamorphosis does occur for Tess over the course of No Good Deeds.
"For the average person, the kinds of choices that a kid like Lloyd Jupiter makes are just baffling, they go against everything we think we know about the value of hard work and going to school and paying attention. But as time goes on, Tess herself becomes increasingly skeptical of authority, is scared to tell the truth, doesn't know who she can trust, and her situation comes to mirror Lloyd's."
Lippman has always had a strong affinity for the juvenile characters that manage to work their way into the heart of her stories. But expect Tess to have a child of her own any time soon. "I don't think Tess can have a baby and continue in this series," Lippman says. "I think she could get married but I think the minute you give your character a child, the reader's tolerance for some of the things Tess does just disappears. If she risks herself, then she risks her child losing a mother. I'll never say never, but I can't see it for Tess right now."
After all, Tess has taken on iconic status for Baltimore in the same way Spenser did for Boston and Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch did for Los Angeles. "One of the spoilers I tell readers is, if you see a character of mine who doesn't like Baltimore very much, you know there's something wrong with that guy," Lippman chuckles.
Her reportorial eye for detail, understated prose style and emotional realism have elevated Lippman to the A-list of literary crime writers alongside Lehane, Connelly, Harlan Coben, Robert Crais and George Pelecanos. Lippman suspects the best contemporary literature can now be found in the mystery genre.
"Raymond Chandler said that the difference between literary fiction and crime fiction is that the ordinary mystery gets published and the ordinary literary novel does not. I don't think that's true anymore. I love my genre. Why would I want to transcend it? Why would I want to break out of it? It's a big territory, but the really interesting work is being done at the borderlands."
Jay MacDonald is a writer in Oxford, Mississippi.