I'm a mystery buff. But sometimes I get in a rut, gravitating to the same authors over and over again, waiting for their latest novels or looking for one of theirs that I haven't yet read. So it was a happy accident when I picked up a paperback mystery by a new--to me--author to read on the plane ride home from Phoenix last month and found I actually liked it.
Laura Lippman's The Last Place is one in a series about former Baltimore reporter turned private eye, Tess Monaghan. The opening pages hint at a sinister villain, but the first villain Tess actually encounters is an internet sex predator who has been chatting online with a family member of her friend Whitney. Tess plans to meet him in a bar, expose him, and scare him off, but Whitney has other plans. The two get carried away and leave Mickey Pechter with some seemingly minor physical reminders to stay from young girls.
Unfortunately for Tess, she winds up being charged with assault, and a judge sympathetic to the predator orders her to six months of psychiatric treatment for anger management. Tess is none too happy about the sentence and throws herself into work--an assignment from a non-profit organization to investigate five homicides that might have been the result of domestic violence. After investigating the first three homicides, Tess finds no connection to domestic violence in any of them and reports back to the organization, encouraging them to give up the futile search. When they accuse her of overcharging them and not finishing the job, Tess angrily goes back to research the last two deaths.
At this point, Tess stumbles upon some eerie coincidences that prompt her to dig deeper, whether or not they fit the non-profit's profile. She interviews Carl Dewitt, a Toll Facilities cop, who had discovered one of the victims' bodies and was so upset by it that he became obsessed with solving the case. He is eager to share his information with Tess and becomes her unlikely partner in investigation.
Soon Tess and Carl are in the midst of a puzzle, one with lots of missing pieces. Through persistent examination of every detail in the cases, Tess and Carl realize they are on the trail of a psychopath, and that it is only a matter of time before he kills again. The tension builds as the two get closer to this sinister villain and find themselves in danger as well.
Fans of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski will find Tess Monaghan equally likable. A strong, educated woman, Tess is perfectly capable of taking care of herself and shows some of the same smart-mouthed sarcasm of those two heroines, particularly in her sessions with the court-ordered psychiatrist. But Tess definitely has a softer side and carries a gun only out of necessity, not in any eagerness to use it.
Lippman doesn't use clever, but irrelevant teasers to entice the reader nor does she use blood and gore, as so many other crime novelists do. Instead, she develops the novel as a true mystery, building detail upon detail until the final solution. The characters of Tess and Carl Dewitt are well-developed, but secondary characters like Tess' boyfriend Crow are not so well-drawn. However, in fairness to the Edgar Award-winning Lippman, The Last Place is the seventh in her Tess Monaghan series; thus, readers familiar with her earlier books may already know these characters well. As with any series, references are made to past cases and lost loves--a good excuse for me to start reading her previous novels!
I picked up this novel at my favorite mystery bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona, The Poisoned Pen. I went there on our last day specifically to pick up a signed copy of Clive Cussler's latest work for my oldest son, who's a big fan, and happened to see a display of Lippman's novels. As it turned out, she was going to be at the bookstore that evening to sign copies of her latest book, Life Sentences. Although I wasn't able to go that evening, I was intrigued and picked up The Last Place instead. I also checked out The Poisoned Pen's calendar of events--for a small bookstore, they have a very impressive "guest" list. Autographed photos of famous mystery writers who have held book signings there hang from the ceiling. Clive Cussler himself had been there the week before--had I only known, I would have gotten a personalized autograph for my son! And the week following included a visit from Jonathan Kellerman, whose Alex Delaware's novels I enjoy, along with wife Faye, also a novelist.
The Poisoned Pen is tucked away on a quiet street not far from Old Town Scottsdale. If you are ever in the Phoenix area, do take the time to visit!
If you're interested in finding a good book to read, check out other reviews at Barrie Summy's--you'll find quite a variety!