Lippman, Laura. Baltimore Blues.

NY: Harper, 1996.

It’s always nice to discover a new detective/mystery series of quality and this first book featuring Baltimore native and recently-ex-journalist Tess Monaghan definitely qualifies. Lippman herself is a Baltimorean and ex-reporter and the city’s style and personality constitutes one of the major characters in the story.

Tess, who is tall, strong, gawky, half-Irish and half-Jewish, and pushing thirty, was a perfectly competent general assignments reporter on the Baltimore Star when it was bought out by its rival, the Sun, but she wasn’t good enough to be offered a job by the new owners. She’s been making a precarious living since then by helping out in her Aunt Kitty’s bookstore (and living upstairs), doing overpaid contract work for one of her many uncles, and eating as cheaply as she can.

She spends the first few hours after dawn every day rowing a scull out into the harbor and back, an activity at which she is also competent but far from competition-level. Her friend and fellow rower, Darryl — known as Rock — is near-Olympic quality, however, and he pushes Tess hard. Rock has a fiancée named Ava who works as a assistant in the top law firm in the city (she hasn’t passed the bar yet), and Ava has been attempting (unknown to her boyfriend, of course) to grease the wheels of her career by organizing an affair with a rather strange attorney named Abramowitz, who has gone through multiple careers. And then Abramowitz is found dead in his office, strangled and with his skull crushed. And Ava had just told Rock about her extracurricular activities. And Rock, who could accidentally break your fingers just by shaking hands, is in the hot-seat. His defense attorney is Tyner, who also is a noted rowing coach, and Tyner hires Tess as an investigator — not because he thinks she’ll be good at it, especially, but because that way what she knows will be privileged and the police won’t be able to interview her about her earlier involvement in events leading up to the murder. And boy, is she involved.

That’s the set-up to this complex story and its complicated sub-plots and motives. The background of Baltimore and the world of rowing come alive from the first page, but the characters take a little longer. Still, this was Lippman’s first novel, so a certain amount of shakiness can be excused — and by the halfway point of the book, no excuses are necessary. And Abramowitz’s won’t be the only death, either. I’ll be looking forward to the next volume.

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