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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hardly Knew Her

The only writing of Laura Lippman’s I experienced prior to Hardly Knew Her was her 2007 standalone novel What the Dead Know, an intriguing, realistic mystery with a big surprise at the end. I had somehow managed to miss even the series for which Lippman is best known, the one featuring private detective Tess Monaghan. And as it turns out, I hardly knew Laura Lippman from reading just that one piece of her fiction.

Hardly Knew Her, Lippman’s new collection of 17 short stories (or 16 short stories and a novella, depending on how one classifies the book’s last piece), has a much different tone than I expected from her, one very unlike the what I previously experienced in her writing. This time, instead of serious reality, she offers up a combination of wry humor, nasty surprises, and cold blooded murder in a way that somehow makes even the most brutal crime seem almost comic or, at the very least, completely justifiable.

The book is divided into four distinct sections, and it is in the first section of seven stories, titled “Girls Gone Wild,” that Lippman immediately alerts the reader as to what to expect. These particular girls can take care of themselves just fine, thank you, as someone probably should have warned the males who dared to threaten or cross any of them in this group of stories.

Readers familiar with Lippman’s fiction know that most of it, including the Tess Monaghan stories, is set in Baltimore. For that reason, Lippman calls the second section of the book, comprised of four stories placed in cities like Dublin and New Orleans, “Other Cities, Not My Own.” No matter what their location, there are few good girls in this group of stories either and not many men able to keep up with them. Most, in fact, would have been happy enough just to have survived an encounter with these women.

Part three of the book, “My Baby Walks the Streets of Baltimore, finds Lippman back in familiar territory and includes two Tess Monaghan stories and a less successful faux newspaper “Sunday Lifestyle” kind of feature on female detective Monaghan. “The Shoeshine Man’s Regrets” is a particularly affecting introduction to the ways and style of Tess Monaghan and will create some follow-up interest in that character. The other Monaghan story, “Ropa Vieja” does not work quite as well due to its somewhat obvious crime solution and the newspaper piece just seems jarringly out of place.

The fourth section of the book is the 54-page story, “Scratch a Woman,” about an upscale, work-from-home madam who, in the everyday world, is known to her neighbors as a wealthy soccer mom raising a son on her own. Few, even her sister who lives nearby, know much about her and she is careful to keep it that way until circumstances force her to help her sister cover up a crime that could send both of them to prison. This is by far the longest piece in the book and it is probably no accident that it is also its most effective story.

Hardly Knew Her is a fun-to-read collection that remains fairly light all the way through despite the gruesome crimes committed in many of the stories. Its many surprises and twisted endings help make it all go down pretty easy.

Rated at: 4.0

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