Hush Hush by Laura Lippman (pbk)

Reviewed by Gill Davies

hush hushLaura Lippman is a very accomplished crime writer. She began her writing career as a journalist on the Baltimore Sun and has written a number of successful crime novels.This is the 9th novel in her series featuring Baltimore private eye Tess Monaghan (who also began as a reporter). The series develops Tess’s life and relationships as well as giving her cases to work and crimes to solve. In this case, she is employed by a relative who is a lawyer to provide security for the subject of a documentary film – a woman who, twelve years before, might have murdered her baby. She left her two-month old daughter locked in a hot car on a burning August day while she sat nearby. The twist (the first of many) is that the film has actually been commissioned by the child murderer. After being found not guilty by reason of insanity she had lengthy psychiatric treatment and went to live abroad. Now she has returned to try to forge a new relationship with her two remaining teenage daughters. This is bizarre enough, but her cold confidence and exploitation of those around her make her an especially unsympathetic character. Melisandre Harris Dawes manipulates everyone, including her lawyer, the film-maker and her daughters. Tess wants to resist but is required to protect Melisandre who is receiving threatening notes. An apparent campaign against her culminates in violence and it becomes less clear whether Melisandre is a clever and dangerous woman or a victim herself.

At the same time, Tess gets some increasingly nasty messages that refer to her private life and parenting. Thus her situation is contrasted to but also in parallel with Melisandre’s.

Tess, herself now the mother of a toddler, is pushed to reflect on child-rearing, its ties, feelings of guilt and failures. Living with a man whose parenting skills she fears are superior to hers is a challenge (‘Tess … needed to stockpile any evidence of Crow’s flaws. Because – surprise, surprise – Crow was an exemplary father, a natural parent. The perfect postmodern boyfriend … had segued seamlessly into the perfect postmodern father.’) Tess finds the case she is working reminds her too often of her own mother-daughter failures.The novel develops the theme of mothers and daughters across other characters while engaging the reader in a suspenseful  and surprising plot. The revelations about Melisandre’s past behaviour emerge slowly – partly through the device of reporting individuals’ testimony for the documentary which later become an evidence source when another murder occurs.

I enjoyed Lippman’s style very much – she lets her characters own words reveal them, often with a lively ironic touch. They are described with sharp observation. For example

Tess tried to total up the cost of her outfit, including the jewelry. The wrap, almost certainly cashmere, had been layered over a turtleneck and leggings, which were tucked into suede boots with the tell-tale red soles and five-inch spike heels…. Probably $5,000, $10,000 with the jewelry. On her back. There were people driving around Baltimore in cars worth less than what Melisandre was wearing.

And she adopts a character’s point of view, taking the reader inside their consciousness so that we understand more – or, equally, become more puzzled or more curious. Thus, the teenage Alanna:

She wasn’t a scaredy-cat suburban kid. She was a city kid, a real one, who had grown up in Bolton Hill. She could parallel-park, a skill she kept polished by visiting the old house, which she did all the time. Yet she had never before considered heading to the foot of the highway and making five simple turns toward her own past. But when she turned on Waterview Avenue … she panicked. No, she couldn’t go down there, look at the water, that fucking tree. Instead of pulling into the parking lot, she drove on, blindly.

Or the second wife, Felicia:

Stephen was evolved enough that he usually remembered to say : The other girl’s mother has a job, or works outside the home. Usually. But he spoke the words as if they were foreign-language phrases he didn’t quite understand. What had he said when Joey was born? Why not take some time off? Felicia wondered now if it was because he wanted to save the money that child care would have cost, or if he feared what it would mean to his own day-to-day life if Felicia were working.

Lippman’s witty engagement with contemporary middle class American life emerges vividly while the action moves to its climax. The resolution of the mystery is satisfying and plausible. But more than that, it draws together the threads of psychological and social observation that run through the novel. This is a study of family dynamics, of the hurt that parents can do to children even without physical violence, and of the selfishness and materialism that get in the way of loving relationships. And it does this subtly, without being sententious, so you hardly notice.
SNB logo tinyLaura Lippman, Hush Hush (Faber and Faber, 2015). 978-0571321414, 401pp., paperback.

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