Books by Lippman, Olesker, a pair of voices from The Sun

On Books

September 16, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Once again, I beg your indulgence. It falls to me to choose all books to be reviewed on the pages of this newspaper, and to decide who will review them. Books written by colleagues at The Sun are a particular challenge. These I chose to do myself. Whether you believe my clear-minded objectivity -- well, it's up to you.

I have just finished reading, with delight, In a Strange City, by Laura Lippman (Morrow, 310 pages, $24) and Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, by Michael Olesker (Johns Hopkins, 346 pages, $22.50).

Laura Lippman, beyond being a friend and colleague at The Sun, is an increasingly accomplished writer of mysterious fiction or fictional mysteries, as you may prefer. All of them, so far, and this latest, involve an edgy, hip, street-smart chick-dick (forgive me!) named Tess Monaghan, a private detective with a heart of gold, implacable integrity and all sorts of other admirable qualities.

This is the sixth of the TM books, and previous volumes have won every significant award for mystery fiction that I am aware of. I plead the protection of the first six or eight Amendments to the U.S. Constitution in refusing to say whether there are any imaginable parallels between the Ms. Lippman I know and the Ms. Monaghan I read about.

Nonetheless, the TM series are all steeped in local lore -- savvy about the streets and neighborhoods, and indeed neighbors, of Baltimore in which they are set and amidst whom they unfold.

None more than -- or arguably as much as -- In a Strange City, which draws deftly on one of Baltimore's more self-celebrating legends. That is the delivery, on the eve of the anniversary of Edgar Allen Poe's death, of three roses and a glass of Cognac. Those are brought to Poe's grave by a hooded figure who enjoys complicit anonymity.

(As a longtime former resident of Philadelphia, where Poe actually did much of his work, I leave it to others to point out that he did very little in Baltimore except to drink a great deal, very quickly, to die in thoroughly undignified circumstances and thus to be buried here.)

But without that burial and the little folk ritual to which it gave birth, Lippman would have no story.

And a story she has -- or has concocted. There is crossing and double-crossing; romance and jewelry counterfeiting. There is homophobia and homophilia, homicide and hominess. There is a rich cast of characters, some but by no means all of them familiar to readers of the preceding Tess Monaghan volumes. The whole is so intricate, yet entirely comprehensible, so rattlingly energetic, that I found it hard, if not impossible, to put down. So tightly woven is it that I have a great sense of relief in arguing now that to try to distill here the story itself would deprive readers of the suspense that sustains the most active mystery fiction.

Accept my insistence, then, that the dynamics are captivating. And the texture is deliciously Baltimore -- compelling enough to make me want to eat a "turkey sammich" and to believe, or want to, Lippman's proposal for the missing fourth line of the three-quarters of a quatrain over the Owl Bar at the Belvedere. (No, the secret's safe with me: Read the book.)

Anyone who has read Michael Olesker's columns with any regularity knows the voice and the personal values: descriptive, with a sure sense of individual nuance and tone, vivid with tight anecdotes -- all standing four-square on a fierce old-school-liberal faith nourished by pride in ethnicity and diversity. This book is a celebration of tales.

They add up, of course. The separate elements are strong and very evident: There's sentimentality, about losses and personal conquests, about the little victories that make life a living thing, about anger -- the righteous resentment of unfairnesses that is the primary nourishment of moral muscle.

Olesker was transplanted to Baltimore as a kid by second- and third-generation Jewish parents rising southward from the Bronx. He is -- there's no other word for it -- spiritually rooted in the New York Eastern European Jewish romance, which is one of history's immortal Exodus stories. He tells his piece of that story with moving affection.

Then in 1949 his family moved to the Latrobe Housing Projects in East Baltimore and he fell in love with the town. His early Baltimore becomes a deep, rich chapter of that same Exodus saga. Or, rather, it's a long series of chapters, through which Olesker reaches back to the World War II period and before, the 1920s, reflecting the stories of local heroes and scoundrels and human ornaments who fashioned and epitomized the life of the city back then.

The family moved to Liberty Heights, and Olesker's world opened further. He writes a counterpoint between his own growing up and his newspaper career on one line and, on the other, the stories of men and women he heard all his life, right up to this year. Throughout, there is the flavor of nostalgia, redolent as pesto or kreplach.

Olesker draws on Baltimore's diverse and often isolated and mutually hostile neighborhood, political and clerical tribes. He compiles a group portrait that is both sad and celebratory.

There is celebration of the bonds of ethnicity and the frictions, of the ironies and inconsistencies of adolescence, of discovery. But throughout the book there is also a strong strain of anger. Class, race, family, neighborhood, old-world origins, economic status, social standing -- all are colored by an element of rage against the unfairness of exclusion and denial.

Ultimately, it's an affirming book. Olesker forgives the offenses as human. But it's not all pretty. It's too heartfelt for that.

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