Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues

Several years ago, The New York Times recruited several novelists to write a story to serialize in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. As I recall, these were popular authors with several best-sellers to their credit. They wrote their stories, the Times published them, and then it was over and everyone moved on.

Recently, William Morrow published Laura Lippman’s contribution, “The Girl in the Green Raincoat.” Her series detective, Tess Monaghan, is coupled and bedridden in her Baltimore city bungalow because of problems with her pregnancy. She spends her days in bed, bored out of her skull and fretting about her business, until she spots the girl of the title passing by her window every day walking her dog. She becomes fascinated with her. Then one day, the dog appears, running loose, the girl nowhere in sight, and Tess investigates.

So “Girl” becomes a combination of “Rear Window,” with Tess playing Nero Wolfe and badgering her friends into acting as her Archie Goodwins. In 15 chapters, each the ideal length to be read on a lazy Sunday over brunch, the story unfolds with occasional pauses for Tess to learn about how her parents got together, reflect on the child growing insider her and her relationship with her boyfriend, and wonder which volunteer was going to let themselves into her home to bring her dinner.

Back in the 1990s, I would have loved this book. I happily gorged myself on mysteries and thrillers. I even wrote a few novels and attended a few conventions to rub shoulders at the bar with the genre’s writers. So I have no doubt that fans of the series will love these glimpses of Tess’ life, and the mystery unfolds smoothly and predictably. Lippman is a good writer, better than most in the genre.

So I have to blame myself for letting myself get diverted from Tess’ tale. I kept wondering how many of her fans pay a paperback-plus price for a 150-page story that appeared three years ago. I wondered if Lippman had considered putting it out on the Kindle herself. Would she have earned more money? What would Joe Konrath say? Did the Times think the serial-fiction experiment worked? Are they still in business?

Meanwhile, the culture has exploded and subdivided like botulism on warm egg salad, so much that I worry if anyone will get the Nero Wolfe reference in the third paragraph. It seems almost quaint to be concerned about private detectives and their inner lives, like we care about vampires and zombies now. It seems like a long time ago, in another country.