When I read Laura Lippman’s jaw-dropping mystery Every Secret Thing last year, I was so impressed that I wanted to read more of her work. As it turns out, Secret was her first stand-alone novel, but Lippman had been drawing acclaim for years with her Tess Monaghan series, centered on a Baltimore private investigator with good detecting skills and a boatload of issues. I read three of the Monaghan books and two of them – In Big Trouble and The Sugar House -- were good, but not quite up to the stand-alone effort I liked so much.
The exception was The Last Place, a fast-paced page-turner in which Tess herself becomes a killer’s target. That book was so good, it left me waiting for the next Monaghan effort, and the wait is over. And well worth it, I’m glad to say. By A Spider’s Thread is the newest Tess Monaghan book, and the best I’ve read so far. In Spider’s, Tess acquires a client, wealthy furrier Mark Rubin, whose wife and children have simply disappeared.
Rather, it seems that Rubin’s wife, Natalie left of her own accord, taking the children with her, but he has no idea why. The ever-skeptical Tess, fresh from her own close call, at first question’s Rubin’s abilities as a husband, then starts to suspect something more sinister is at foot. As in Last Place and Secret, Lippman shifts viewpoints throughout the book. Tess and her case are the focus, but we also see the story from the perspective of Natalie, her oldest son Isaac (who knows something is up) and Zeke, the somewhat sinister man that they’re traveling with.
The effect of shifting the viewpoints is that the reader is never quite aware what the real story is up until the end. Twists and turns abound, but not in a cheap way. Lippman’s twists grow out of the characters, so they always seem honest and earned.
Tess, meanwhile, is blessedly still a bit of a mess – professionally competent, but also struggling with her fear of committing to her ardent boyfriend, Crow, and with the impending marriage of her Aunt Kitty to her sometimes-work-associate Tyner Gray. And we also get another priceless scene of Tess, before Rubin hires her, doing some rather un-glamorous detective work – this time dumpster-diving to find evidence for a divorce case.
Lippman has created a great character in Tess, tough but undeniably human. Alas, we see precious little of my other favorite character in the series, Tess’s icy but good-hearted pal Whitney Talbot, who shows up only briefly. Still, Lippman’s gift for creating memorable people still shines, with the remarkably complex Mark Rubin a standout.
Spider’s doesn’t surpass the excellent Every Secret Thing, but it does equal that book, and, more importantly, leaves me eager for Tess Monaghan to make her next appearance.