Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Girl in the Green Raincoat Shows a Softer Side of Tess Monaghan

It's no secret that I'm a Laura Lippman fan. I read her Tess Monaghan series years ago, then somehow abandoned it for a while. Last year, I listened to a Tess book I hadn't yet read (possibly a result of me forgetting about the series for a year or two) and -- wham. Just like that, I was officially obsessed again. One of the key things I love about series novels is the way you get to know both the main character and the city he/ she lives in so well. Case in point: Harry Bosch & L.A.; V.I. Warshawksi & Chicago; Kinsey Milhone & Santa Barbara (oops! I mean the fictional "Santa Teresa"); Izzy Spellman & San Francisco; Sookie Stackhouse & Bon Temps, Lousiana; Valentine Roncalli & NYC; Archie Sheridan & Portland, Oregon; and so many more.

The Tess Monaghan series, beginning with Baltimore Blues in 1997, details not only private investigator Tess, but also her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. If you thought you learned a lot about the city while watching Charm City Cakes, think again -- Lippman's books are the way to go. I recently read all but one of Lippman's standalone novels, and I'll assure you they are every bit as good as -- while very different from -- the Tess series. Basically, pick up a Lippman novel and you can't go wrong. Tess is a tough character, Baltimore born and bred by a stable, middle-class family. Tess is somewhat of a black sheep in her family, and lives an independent life first as a free-lance writer and newspaper reporter, and eventually as a P.I.

Until, that is, she meets Crow midway into the series. Crow is lovable and as unlike Tess as they come. The unlikely duo, however, has come to a new place of commitment in Lippman's new Tess novel The Girl in the Green Raincoat. The novel, which was first published in the New York Times as a serial, depicts Tess as readers have never seen her before: pregnant. Close to term and banished to bed rest to keep the baby in utero a bit longer, Tess is as bored and uncomfortable as she's ever been. The world outside her window is unavailable to her except through observation, which she incidentally does fairly often. Frequent passers-by become new obsessions for Tess, especially a beautiful woman who walks her dog past Tess's house each day. When the pair don't show up one day, Tess begins worrying about the woman -- and her dog.

She ropes longtime friend Whitney Talbot into helping her investigate the woman's disappearance, an investigation she runs from her sunroom. Whitney takes care of the legwork, and Tess's interviewees come to her rather than the other way around. Crow continuously tries to stop his unborn child from being harmed by Tess's nonstop investigative urges, but she is determined to follow through with the case -- if there even is a case, that is. Overall, this is a lighter-than-normal Tess book (both in size and in topic), but an ultimately satisfying one. It's nice as a reader to see a human side of Tess, a book in which her story is as important -- if not more important -- as the case she's trying to solve.

Lippman once wrote that she felt the Tess series was ending with The Girl in the Green Raincoat. She then goes on to say that she is unsure this is true, but currently has no plans for her most famous character. Let's all hope that isn't true. If it is, we can only hope Lippman will continue writing her fabulous standalone novels so that we can continue to catch glimpses of her Baltimore.

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