For 13 years, Baltimore's Laura Lippman, creator of the Tess Monaghan private-eye series, has shown mystery fans that high-caliber writing is more potent than full-bore gunplay.
But a new wave of media interest, and the release Tuesday of her most ambitious nonseries novel yet — the harrowing, impassioned "I'd Know You Anywhere" — suggest that Lippman, 51, is on the verge of breaking out to bigger audiences as a master storyteller, not just a master of her genre.
If it all comes through, her work will soon be ubiquitous.
Diane Lane is attached to star in an adaptation of Lippman's "Every Secret Thing."
Jay Cocks ("Gangs of New York") is writing a TV pilot for a projected series based on her Monaghan books.
In January, a Monaghan serial she wrote for The New York Times Magazine will come out in a handsome trade paperback. Called "The Girl in the Green Raincoat," it's "Rear Window" redone with a pregnant woman — Tess, no less —on bed rest.
Lippman, a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun, is taking it all in with poise and sanity. She has learned to see the humor in the disconnects that occur, she says, "when things I know about for a while suddenly become news."
Though she doesn't rule out original film projects, Lippman says, "it's a gift to get a check" from TV and movie people and be able to stick to the published word.
Her editor, Carrie Feron, who has worked with Lippman from the beginning ("Baltimore Blues," in 1997), might be more excited than Lippman is by this surge of activity.
"It's astonishing." Feron says. "The sky's the limit."
But Lippman has kept distraction at bay. She has few illusions about movies and television. She's seen TV/film production up close as the wife of David Simon, the creator of acclaimed HBO sagas such as "The Wire" and "Treme."
Don't get her wrong: She'd love for Cocks to write a pilot that would be produced and bought by a network "because it would just be cool to see a good TV series made out of the Tess books." She's thrilled that Oscar winner Frances McDormand is the producer of "Every Secret Thing."
But Lippman knows that film and TV often depend on luck and opportunity.
"My literary agent lives in the same building in New York as Frances and Joel Coen, and she handed Fran the book on the elevator. And Fran decided to option the book with her own money," Lippman says. " Nicole Holofcener wrote the script. And this is how good the screenplay was — reading it, I didn't notice what stuff she left out." (Although Holofcener was once attached as the director, too, she has bowed out of that job.)
As Lippman puts it, "What more do I want? I get to sit home and write books as a full-time gig."
When Feron says "the sky's the limit," she's also talking about Lippman's literary potential. "The scope of her books just gets bigger," says Feron. "Of course, there is a crime in 'I'd Know You Anywhere,' which still places it in the category of a crime novel. But I think she transcends category. Everyone hopes that as we age 13 years, we become wiser. And I think she's become wiser in her writing and as a person."
Lippman says, "I like to be solitary as a writer — not as a person, but I like to be alone in my work." The focus that helped her put out 16 books in 13 years has given her growing confidence and creative liberty.
For "I'd Know You Anywhere," she took on daunting challenges.
It was hard to invade the psyche of a man named Walter Bowman, who kidnaps teenage girls, then sexually assaults and murders them. But she succeeded so well that "now, when reviewers call him a killer and a psychopath, I have this knee-jerk reaction. Not that I like Walter — I think he's loathsome. He's really bad, not evil, but bad — evil is too big for him. But a psychopath and killer? That's not all he is."
Asking for patience
For different reasons, it was equally hard to put readers inside the head of Walter's sole survivor, Elizabeth Lerner (who becomes Eliza Benedict as an adult), a shy 15-year-old who, despite her trauma, grows up to be a sane and happy woman. "A nice person — who's relatively happy at the beginning of the book — is one of the biggest challenges in fiction, I thought and I've been told. So I really wanted to do this," Lippman says.
Lippman shifts the narrative between the mid-1980s, when the crimes occur, and the present day, when Walter contacts Eliza from death row in hopes she'll help stay his execution. Lippman knows some readers will find Elizabeth a passive teenager. But she wants them to see that "Walter had broken her down: She was living by her wits."