Another Thing to Fall
by Laura Lippman
Published by William Morrow
336 pages, 2008
The Reel World
Reviewed by M. Wayne Cunningham
Like the nine previous novels in her private eye Tess Monaghan series, Laura Lippman’s newest installment, Another Thing to Fall, is set in her hometown of Baltimore. And like the others, it’s a sure-fire read for its plot, characterization, dialogue and authentic Charm City settings. But this time we find Baltimore, “in its full autumnal glory,” as the focal point for feature films, past and present.
In fact, hardly a page of this novel goes by without some mention of a movie title or actor, or at least a cluster of movie set jargon. Characters chat about The Diner, Tin Men, The Wire and ... And Justice for All. They refer to Henry Fonda, Sergio Leone, Francis Ford Coppola and Baltimorean John Waters. They spout off about call sheets, honey wagons, bangers, eps and sides. And in between the cinema-related stuff there are reminders of this Maryland city’s former glory -- of Bethlehem Steel having been sold “and scavenged for its parts, leaving its retirees without so much as medical benefits or adequate pensions”; of “the hundreds of jobs lost when the [Proctor & Gamble] plant was closed”; and of the National Bohemian (“Natty Boh”) brewery that “had pulled up stakes long ago.” Local icons make cameos in the commentary here, too. Icons such as Martick’s, the made-over speakeasy, and “Baltimore girl” Wallis Warfield Simpson, and Dashiell Hammett, who “grew up in Southwest Baltimore, and started work as a Pinkerton here.”
While the cameras roll on the production of Mann of Steel, the pilot for a TV miniseries being shot in Baltimore, we find Ms. Monaghan -- 33 years old, “going on seventy” -- managing her thriving detective agency, besieged with “more business than she could handle.” Despite that, she’s also teaching an evening course in P.I. work at Hopkins University to her dozen “Charles Street Irregulars.” And she’s taken on the thankless task for babysitting Mann of Steel’s 20-year-old apparently air-headed co-star, Selene Waites.
The TV series could pour millions of dollars into the city’s economy, so its producers -- who are in line to make a tidy profit from their project -- are welcomed with open arms. Everybody wants this shoot to be squeaky-clean. But Selene is making that hard, with her after-hours antics at the local bars. Hence, the call to Tess for help.
Keeping Selene out of trouble is no easy task. Tess fails her first-night assignment, getting drugged and dumped by Selene and one of her boyfriends, “the actor of the moment.” But, as her previous outings have demonstrated, Tess isn’t easily outdone. She gets the upper hand when she hires her gal pal, Whitney Talbot, to help corral Selene and then keep the headstrong young actress under their collective thumbs. But while gumshoe Tess reins in Selene, she can’t exercise similar control over other events threatening the film’s production -- a potential union shutdown, a suicide, a series of fires and smoke bombings, behind-the-scenes backstabbing and bad-mouthing, and a nasty feud between Selene and her co-star, a middle-aged actor who’s sliding down the ratings charts as quickly as she skyrockets up them. Adding to all these other troubles are an apparent stalker, bent on revenge, and a couple of killings that our heroine has to solve before she can dead-file the case and re-shelve the broken Emmy statuette that ultimately helps her find the murderer.
Lippman’s characters all contribute five-star performances in these pages. Tess Monaghan, of course, leads the cast, sorting out clues and tracking suspects, at the same time as she does mundane and endearing things like paying her bills, accidentally ruining a movie-scene shoot that was three days in the making, and sculling up the Patapsco River while listening on her Sony Walkman to “some songs by Brave Combo, a nuclear polka band that Tess quite liked.” Then there’s her boyfriend, Edgar “Crow” Ransome, with whom she shares a concern for his school-dropout ward, Lloyd Jupiter. Deserving the reader’s attention, as well, is one of the students from Tess’ class at the university, the hefty, 60-something Felicia Blossom, a priceless Miss Marple-type, who tiptoes around with “a delicacy of movement, not unlike the tutu’ed hippos in Fantasia” and unearths clues at just the right time.
Not unpredictably, Selene Waites turns out to be a lot more devious than anyone thought, and her jealous male co-star gives new meaning to the term “drama queen.” Meanwhile, the penny-pinching female production manager, a 4-foot-10 package of dynamite with more than 20 years in the moviemaking biz, never cuts anyone any slack for anything, including Tess. The portrayal of the stalker in this story could send shivers reverberating all around Alfred Hitchcock’s rotund frame, and several other characters might feel equally at home on the set of a Hitchcock or Stephen King film set.
While dealing with all of these eccentrics, both on and off the set, Tess often wonders what’s real and what’s merely façade, who’s acting and who’s sincere. Even after the lights have been dimmed, the set struck, the players gone, the unofficial premiere of Mann of Steel held at Baltimore’s prestigious Senator Theatre and her 10th case successfully solved, those questions remain to haunt Laura Lippman’s protagonist. | May 2008
M. Wayne Cunningham is a former community college English instructor and administrator, and once served as the executive director of the Saskatchewan Arts Board. His reviews have appeared in Books in Canada, The Mystery Review, Mystery Readers Journal, The Vancouver Rain Review of Books and in a weekly column he formerly wrote for The Kamloops Daily News. He is a resident of Kamloops, British Columbia.