The Accidental Crime Novelist
As a journalist at the Baltimore Sun in the 1990s, Laura Lippman began to consider where her reporting skills could take her as the newspaper industry began its long, slow contraction. She wanted something where she could use her skills for interviewing, researching, AND digging into the heart of a story. When a friend mentioned that she was always welcome to work for him as a private investigator, she began to imagine what it would be like to lead a double life. So she began writing the story of Tess Monaghan, a newspaper reporter turned accidental PI—a character that would launch Lippman onto the New York Times best-seller list and into a new career as a crime novelist.
In this extended Monologue interview, Lippman discusses her transition from reporter to writer of such novels as What the Dead Know and Sunburn, how women over 60 make the best spies, and why she’s rooting for the decline of dead-girl fiction.
How did you get started as a crime novelist?
I spent 20 years as a journalist, and I’m now in my 22nd year as a novelist. There was seven years when I was doing both, but now I’ve been a crime novelist longer than I was a reporter. I covered cops in Waco and San Antonio, Texas. In Baltimore, I came in as a beat reporter covering poverty in social services. If I dipped into the police beat, it would be to fill in on weekend and holiday shifts, or the occasional longform narrative that happened to be a crime story.
Were you drawn to detective stories as a child?
My mom’s a librarian, and I’ve been a reader since a very early age. What I really liked were the Encyclopedia Brown stories, where the reader was asked to solve the mystery. I really loved the fact that Encyclopedia was the brain and his friend Sally was the muscle—she was the one who had to beat people up when they were threatening Encyclopedia Brown.
By my late teens, I’m reading James Cain and Raymond Chandler. I always liked very hard-boiled stuff, the classic American stuff. Then in the early 1990s, there was this explosion of great crime fiction created by Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Muller, and a lot of it was anchored by female private detectives. I really did need these books to exist before it occurred to me that someone could write novels about a female PI.
Was the female detective missing from crime fiction until this point?
You can find her in early 20th-century fiction, but the fact is—a fact that’s often overlooked—the primary audience for crime fiction is women. By the 1980s, the private-eye novel was pretty moribund. Then Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton published their first novels: Grafton is writing about Kinsey Millhone, a private eye who seems pretty much in the classic mold, except that she’s female; she’s rather isolated, and she doesn’t have a lot of friends.
Is there something about the genre of crime fiction that allows for certain freedoms in what you are able to imbue in your female characters—what women are allowed to be?
I started writing about a young, unemployed Baltimore journalist who became a private eye almost by accident. I was a reporter at the time; newspapers weren’t doing well, and I had to contemplate what would I do if I lost my job at the newspaper. I had a colleague who told me that he had a standing offer to go to work as an investigator for an insurance company. I thought, wait, there are certain jobs that value what I know how to do, which is how to find out answers, how to research things, how to interview people. I was so worried about my own economic security that I began writing this character, Tess Monaghan, as a kind of alternative history of my own life.
If you’re writing about a female character, even if she’s very strong—and I made my character a very strong, athletic rower—she’s still generally not stronger than most men. That meant that she had to be smarter, that she had to outwit men.
Over the course of 12 books, Tess has killed exactly one person. It’s something that has affected her profoundly, a trauma that she still has to deal with. It is a very violent, graphic, and gory scene. I wanted it to be kind of awful and bloody; I wanted it to be a scene in which she had to get in close, where she’s fighting for her own life and she had to do stomach-churning things in order to survive. This was important to me.
I also made a conscious decision in the series to have an older woman, Mrs. Blossom, sort of apprentice herself to Tess. She is actually a tribute to my own mom, who is super, super smart but doesn’t do technology. She doesn’t have an email account, doesn’t use a computer, sends me notes that are written on her manual typewriter.
What skills does she have? She has an innate genius for surveillance. Why is she so good at surveillance? Because she is a woman over 60, and women over 60 are pretty much invisible in our culture. Mrs. Blossom understands this is her gift; that she can go anywhere and watch anyone, and that she would be forgotten because most people simply aren’t paying attention to her.
Being invisible is a superpower. If you can reach a point in your life where, most of the time, you genuinely don’t care what people think about you, oh my goodness, it’s the greatest.
Do you think that women have a different relationship to crime stories than men because of their different vulnerabilities to crime in real life?
I think the prey is more interested in the predator than the predator is in the prey. I don’t think the predator spends a lot of time thinking about the interior life of its prey; it just needs to know enough to catch what it wants to catch, to do what it wants to do.
As a woman, you have to understand that at times you are prey, and then you have to think: What makes me vulnerable? What is dangerous for me? What do I have to worry about?
I have something I like to say about my genre and about award-winning books in my genre. I’m allowed to say it because I won a bunch of awards, so no one could accuse me of sour grapes. If you look at the books that win the most prestigious prizes in my genre, and they’re very good books, but a lot of them can be summed up this way: a beautiful woman dies and a man feels bad about it.
Maybe he’s the detective who’s fallen in love with the woman he believes to be dead, only she’s not dead, spoiler alert. Maybe he’s the accused and that’s why he feels bad about it. Maybe he’s the falsely accused. Maybe it’s his daughter, maybe it’s his wife, but a beautiful woman dies and a man feels bad about it.
I think what we’re seeing right now in the genre is that women are saying, well, wait a minute, I want the story to be about the woman who died. She matters. She’s not just a plot point to kick things off.
Certainly, this is what I’m inspired to write. I tried my hand at writing a novel that completely inverted the formula of The Postman Always Rings Twice. What if the person passing through town is a beautiful woman instead of a handsome man? How does that change the story?
Do you believe too many crime stories involve the violence and death of women? Are you saying it’s a lazy device?
I feel confident that my victims are fully fleshed out, so I don’t worry too much about the gender count. What I do worry about is that there was a period of time in crime fiction where people thought that upping the stakes meant more dead bodies, killed in more horrible and fiendish ways. I think that if crime fiction should recognize anything, it is that one death is enough. It doesn’t have to be a serial killer. We don’t need books in which the killer is going to keep killing until he’s stopped. One death is enough. As crime writers, we have a responsibility to maintain and convey the humanity of the dead, not to write stories in which the investigation of the death makes the investigator a better person.
You live in Baltimore, which has a certain reputation with regard to crime. Do you feel that reputation has narrowed people’s perceptions of the city you call home? What do people get wrong about Baltimore?
I know that the minute people hear there’s been a homicide in Baltimore, the first thing they want to do is figure out how to distance themselves from it. The moment they hear that a young African American man in West Baltimore has been killed, they feel very comfortable thinking, Oh, that’s just another drug deal. That’s just a drug dealer. I don’t have to care about that.
I live less than two miles from a place where a lot of young men are killed every year in certain West Baltimore neighborhoods. I think that’s the challenge, is to do right by these stories about what I would almost call little deaths. They’re never the front-page stories, never the blonde girls who end up on CNN. Every murder in Baltimore affects life in Baltimore.
How has crime in Baltimore informed your work?
My husband, David Simon, created the HBO series The Wire—a show that is often used as a shorthand for people when they’re trying to tell you what Baltimore is not. It’s not just The Wire, they’ll say.
Well, The Wire knew that Baltimore was not just The Wire. In fact, The Wire was not even meant to be about Baltimore in particular. It could have been set in Cleveland or Buffalo, or any Rust Belt city that was struggling with certain systemic failures.
In some ways, Baltimore’s reputation is pretty well deserved right now. I don’t think it has effective policing. A lot of this is the legacy of the Freddie Gray riots, and a lot of factors have come together that mean that more people are getting murdered and fewer of those murders are getting solved.
What makes a crime story better told as fiction rather than nonfiction? And vice versa?
The best fictional crime stories are really credible. And the best nonfiction crime stories are like, oh, that couldn’t happen in a million years.
But in general, incredible real-life stories make great nonfiction. Like wow, I could never have believed that. That’s way too coincidental. In my fiction, in what I write and what I read, I’m always telling people that I really like my stories a little bit smaller than life.
Have you ever dreamed about being a private investigator?
My husband and I have had a tendency to be armchair sleuths, and we have tried to solve some neighborhood crimes. One day, I was in my closet, which has a small window that overlooks the alley behind our house, and I saw these three guys trying the gates of people’s backyards. I called out to my husband, and we both split up and I followed one and he followed two, and he called 911 and he got them busted.
Another time, we were so busy trying to figure out how to foil the burglary of our neighbors’ bikes that they were stolen while we are talking about what was the best way to keep them from being stolen. We once solved the crime of my stepson’s missing Hebrew school homework; someone broke into the car and stole this backpack and was bitterly, bitterly disappointed at what they found. We had to search the alleys around our house until we found the missing backpack.
I’m not a really successful crime fighter. I sit around and think a lot, but in the end, I don’t really have the skills.