Well, summer reading is here. These unseasonably hot days (and evenings) are a perfect excuse for more detective stories. In a Strange City is my first venture into Laura Lippman’s series about novice P.I. (and former journalist) Tess Monaghan.* The setting for the series is contemporary Baltimore; this installment concerns the famed Poe Toaster and dirty dealings with Baltimore memorabilia.
Lippman offers an insider’s view of the “strange city” she obviously knows and loves—despite its flaws and the criminal element that keeps Tess employed. The novel is chock-full of local color: the Daily Grind coffee shop, the Owl Bar, the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Local references abound—the Colts and the Orioles, author Anne Tyler, the Poe Museum’s Jeff Jerome, a Baltimore belle who was briefly married to Napoleon’s brother. Sometimes the references are deftly woven into the narrative, while other times they seem as blatant and awkward as product placements in a movie or TV show.
Of course, Poe looms large: mysterious poet, creative genius, tragic failure. Published in 2000, Strange City is a bit of a period piece now, since the annual visitor hasn’t been spotted at Poe’s grave since 2009.
It occurs to me that Tess’s inexperience is the perfect cover for a writer who may not be entirely knowledgeable about everything that P.I. should know. Certainly Tess makes her share of blunders, from ticking off the cop on the case to following up the wrong leads—but that’s all part of the fun.
* Earlier this year I read Lippman’s short story “The Last of Sheila-Locke Holmes” in A Study in Sherlock.