A success that's no mystery

CATCHING UP WITH... Laura Lippman

Baltimore writer's talent and drive have made her a crime fiction star

September 05, 2004|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,Sun Staff

Writer Laura Lippman is in her element. Perched on a stool before an audience of adoring fans at a book signing in White Marsh, the tall blonde is fielding questions about By a Spider's Thread (William Morrow, $24.95), the latest installment of her Baltimore-based mystery series featuring private investigator Tess Monaghan.

With Lippman, though, the conversation inevitably wanders away from the immediate topic at hand. She offers her opinions on reading (a selfish act, best done in the bathtub with a glass of wine) and a favorite television series (Freaks & Geeks: it's hard for her to accept that the characters are not real), and gets back to possible plans for her main character Tess ("I'd like to put her on a film production in Baltimore, maybe an HBO special that is set at Fort McHenry").

Despite the fluorescent lighting and the impersonal feel of the mega-bookstore, she makes the talk seem like a cozy conversation. She's animated, blunt and funny, comfortable being the center of attention. It is no wonder that those who came walked away with armfuls of books.

"So many writers are shy," the 45-year-old author says. "I'm not."

Indeed, Lippman will never be mistaken for famously reclusive Baltimore author Anne Tyler. After nine books, almost uniformly favorable reviews, numerous mystery-writing awards and seeing her work translated into eight languages, Lippman still tends to her readers with the kind of fervor that new members of Congress direct toward their constituents. She engages them individually, replies to all their e-mails (roughly 50 a week), and shows up at obscure locations to greet them. "They are my bosses," she says.

She directs similar energy toward others in the close-knit world of crime fiction publishing and promotion. She knows bookstore owners and fulfills her speaking engagements; she's friendly with the people who decide which titles are selected for distribution through Mystery Guild, a sort of book-of-the-month club for the genre; she speaks on panels, gives advice to other authors. To her, this is part of the job of a working writer.

"Being a professional is something that is very much in my control. I take it very seriously," she says. It "means not being a prima donna, it means showing up on time."

It's a philosophy that appears to keep her grounded as admiration for her work grows.

"Attention," she would say after her White Marsh stop, part of a summer book tour that has taken her to 15 cities, "is as addictive as crack. I do not Google myself, I do not go to Amazon. You have to be ready for it all to stop."

But indications are that won't happen soon. "She's poised to make 'the list,' " says Otto Penzler, the owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan, referring to the coveted New York Times best-seller list, a holy grail to authors and their publishers. "She's gotten better with each book."

Tess has a following

Those books began showing up seven years ago, and Lippman has produced them at the breakneck pace of one book a year since.

Fans have grown to like Tess, the feisty, opinionated and sometimes stubborn newspaper reporter turned private investigator in her series novels, and seem to have an insatiable appetite for more details about her.

Her books also attract male readers, something unusual in the notoriously segregated world of mystery writing.

"Laura does not write typical women's mystery," explained Penzler. A lot of books in the genre, he says, "are so light and fluffy that it makes you barf -- the cat solves the crime or everyone stops to go shopping."

"She created an interesting, gutsy, troubled character in Tess Monaghan," said Noreen Wald, the executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America. "People buy the next book and the next book because they wanted to find out what happens to Tess next."

Recently, a caller on a radio show asked Lippman if Tess prefers gin or vodka in her martini (for the record, it's gin).

"I was very moved," said Lippman. "That was the sign that the character has become extremely real to people."

That accomplishment carries with it a slight burden, however -- keeping all the details she's created about her character straight. Were she ever to hire an assistant, Lippman says, the first task would be to create a cheat sheet of Tess' life.

But if Tess stumbles along though life with human foibles, there is a steady and consistent presence in Lippman's books that balance her: her hometown of Baltimore.

Tess Monaghan dines at the Brass Elephant and Petit Louis. She shops at Mystery Loves Company in Fells Point. She munches on fresh Utz potato chips. The Patterson Park pagoda has made it into one book. As one fan, Shirley Brockmeyer of Dundalk, put it at the book signing, "some sentences could only be understood by someone from Baltimore."

In fact, Lippman says, one of her biggest readerships is a group she terms "ex-pats," as in former Baltimore residents.

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