Laura Lippman offers the kind of visual analogies one would expect of a sublime mystery: “winter is back, bitter as baking chocolate.” The noir-esque language in Charm City lulls the reader into a state of anticipation of the promise of a wonderful story ahead. But when one has to slog through 250 pages of what seem like nonsensical plot set-ups to get to the good stuff, it is difficult to simply enjoy the story. The journey, in this case, isn’t as much fun as the outcome. The resolution(s) almost make this book worthwhile.
The backdrop is a gritty Baltimore newsroom, and the main character is a newspaper reporter-turned-investigator. A scandalous story goes to print “accidentally”, and that is the first stir of the pot. A relative hospitalized and the death of a friend further muddy the waters. All the great and lurid things about reporting are definitely in place here: sex, blood, and utter betrayal. Tess, the “defrocked reporter,” slowly finds her way through a murky and unrewarding investigation, with little help and a lot of animosity thrown at her.
Several different storylines are woven together throughout the book, some personal tales of woes and deception, some professional stories full of angst and blinding ambition. There is even a story sure to tweak the emotional side of any reader, in the form of an odd, scraggly greyhound named Esskay. Bad guys abound, surprise allies show up at the most opportune moments, and everything is nearly wrapped up neatly. Hopefully she’ll manage to get her personal life under control in the next one.
One thing that is handled deftly is the huge cast of characters. In any real person’s life, there are family members, friends, co-workers, old acquaintances, etc., to keep track of. Jumping into a single point in time, it can sometimes be hard to keep track of all of these people. At no time in Charm City do the characters get jumbled, no matter how big or small a role they have in Tess’ life.
Another surprising plus, after backing away from the story as a whole, is the growth of the main character through the story. The core of who Tess is, is very authentic and convincing. Parts of her are very fluid, though, as she learns, regrets and grows up a little as she approaches thirty. That single realization may be enough to give Tess another try.
While the mystery itself fails to create the labyrinth of twists and turns needed to be a true diversion, the characters and the writing itself in Charm City carry the story. The Tess Monaghan mysteries may be the sort of series that improves. This was only Tess’ second adventure - give her time to mature.