In 1994, Susan Smith drowned her two sons by pushing them into a South Carolina lake and implicated a black man for the crime; in 2001, Andrea Yates drowned her five children in Houston; in 2005, China Arnold microwaved her infant daughter to death in Dayton, Ohio. What drove these women and others to kill their children? Were they victims of postpartum depression or just evil?
Laura Lippman attempts to answer these thorny questions in “Hush Hush,” her first full-length novel featuring wise-cracking Baltimore P.I. Tess Monaghan since 2010’s “Another Thing to Fall.” Over 11 Monaghan books and eight stand-alone novels, Lippmann has become a leading practitioner of what mystery critic Sarah Weinman calls “domestic suspense,” a term describing female writers who “give readers a glimpse of the darkest impulses. ... Especially those impulses that begin at home.”
Much of Lippmann’s acclaim came from her complex stand-alone novels, beginning with 2004’s “Every Secret Thing.” Could Lippmann deliver on that complexity while traversing the familiar terrain of a series heroine known almost as much for her wry observations of Baltimore life as her sleuthing abilities?
In “Hush Hush,” Tess and her new partner, former “homicide police” Sandy Sanchez, have been hired to assess the personal security of infamous and wealthy Melisandre Harris Dawes, a former attorney and stay-at-home mother. Twelve years before, Dawes was found not guilty by reason of insanity for the murder of her 2-month-old daughter, whom she left to die inside a parked car. In the wake of the verdict, Melisandre gave up custody of her two older daughters to her ex-husband, real estate developer Stephen Dawes, and left the country.
Now Melisandre has returned to Baltimore, anxious to film scenes of her reunion with her daughters for a documentary she’s financing about her case and the criminal insanity plea. And Tess — recommended by her uncle-by-marriage, attorney Tyner Gray — is drawn into Melisandre’s seductively peculiar word.
Haughty and narcissistic, Melisandre seems to have everyone enthralled by her wealth and her camera-ready charms: “Melisandre walked with her head up, long tendrils of hair bouncing like some shampoo commercial.” But with a young child to provide for, Tess needs the money. Documentary filmmaker Harmony Burns needs cash and a credit. Tyner Gray, a prickly and proud man confined to a wheelchair for many years, needs to be needed.
Told through multiple points of view, including cleverly used transcripts of the documentary, “Hush Hush” provides telling insights into a broad range of characters: Melisandre’s older daughter, Alanna, a manipulator-in-waiting willing to keep secrets for a price; her younger daughter, Ruby, who harbors secrets of her own; Felicia, Stephen Dawes’ second wife and an overwhelmed new mother herself; and Tyner’s wife, Kitty, an independent bookstore owner who tries to ignore the increasing amounts of time her husband is spending with his demanding client (and former girlfriend).
Melisandre’s mothering skills, or lack thereof, also give Tess plenty of opportunities to compare and contrast her own shortcomings in raising her own young daughter, Carla Scout. Lippman writes, “Throughout her life, Tess had always had her share of feeling overmatched and incompetent, but nothing made her feel like more of a failure than being a mother.”
Soon, the women find they have more in common than they might imagine — both are receiving increasingly threatening notes. By the time those sending the notes are revealed, someone dies and others close to Tess are threatened in ways she’d never imagine.
Tess Monaghan has had a lot of life-altering changes in the years since readers last were regularly treated to her incisive take on Baltimore and its colorful denizens: motherhood (a change shared by author Lippmann), a new business partner, a deepening commitment to long-suffering boyfriend Crow. Lippmann takes considerable care getting the reader reacquainted with “Smalltimore,” a term she’s coined for the small-town interconnectedness of everyone in big-city Baltimore.
The addition to the series of Sandy Sanchez (the protagonist of last year’s excellent “After I’m Gone”) promises future depth, but in “Hush Hush,” it’s difficult to feel much empathy for many of these characters other than Tess. Additionally, too many asides and digressions hinder the novel’s pacing, while not all of the back story will be understandable to those who haven’t read previous books in the series.
Nonetheless, Lippmann’s trademark ability to dig beneath the surface of family life, no matter how twisted, is in fine form, which will cause her fans to raise their Natty Boh’s in salute to return of the redoubtable Tess Monaghan, her growing family and ever-loyal friends.
Woods is the editor of several anthologies and four novels in the Charlotte Justice mystery series.
William Morrow: 303 pp,; $26.99