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Secrets and Ties

Author Laura Lippman Takes a Break From Heroine Tess Monaghan With Every Secret Thing, "The Most Hard-Boiled Book to Ever Begin With A Barbie Doll."

Sam Holden

By Lizzie Skurnick | Posted 8/20/2003

There's a line Baltimore crime writer Laura Lippman likes to quote about the ultimate mystery buff's movie, Chinatown. It was uttered by Dennis Lehane, a fellow crime writer, and Lippman highlighted it in a recent Slate "Diary" column discussing her career as a novelist and former writer for The Sun. As Lippman wrote: "'Chinatown is a very simple story,' Dennis said, 'once you realize that Evelyn Mulwray slept with her father and had his child.'"

The plot of Lippman's raw, compelling new novel, Every Secret Thing, could never be unraveled so easily. Intersecting the mystery of two 11-year-old girls who have killed a baby with the rash of child abductions that occur when they are released from prison seven years later, Every Secret Thing is a striking and enormously successful departure for Lippman, best known for her Baltimore-based string of novels featuring sometime-P.I. Tess Monaghan, avid rower and journalist by day, gumshoe by night.

Swirling a glass of fume blanc at Federal Hill's Regi's, Lippman attempts to explain what led her to take a break from her popular heroine. Tess, she says, "was literally really beaten up at the end of [2002's] The Last Place." In addition, Lippman's interest in child murder had been piqued when, on a trip to England, she witnessed the verdict in the notorious Jamie Bulger case. The judge gave both teenage murderers new names and identities, imposing the threat of hefty fines on any citizen daring to disclose them. "Never happen here!" Lipmann says emphatically. "I was even wondering whether Web sites outside the U.K. would out these boys. And it started there."

Though Lippman, as winner of the Edgar, Shamus, Agatha, Anthony, and Nero Wolfe awards (some two times over), is well-known in mystery circles, and certainly has a high profile in Baltimore, critical reception to Every Secret Thing, which received gushing reviews in publishing bibles Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, promises to vault her into an entirely different order of readership.

"Publishing is like flying," Lippman confides, discussing the glossy 12-city publicity tour that kicks off with the publication of the book in the first week of September. "You keep finding out that there's another class above you."

Lippman has far greater insight into the publicity process than a typical star-on-the-verge. During her 12-year tenure as a reporter and features writer for The Sun, she interviewed such literary luminaries as Doris Lessing, Richard Rodriguez, Roddy Doyle, Michael Lind, and mystery notables like Walter Mosley, George Pelecanos, and Sue Grafton. "I have a lot of writer friends, and I'm kind of in the middle of the pack," Lippman says. "I think because I wrote about writers for so long I knew a lot of this stuff, and I'm not at the mercy of it."

Some of this preternatural calm in the face of the coming media storm may also be due to the white-hot status of Lippman's boyfriend, David Simon, another former Sun reporter. Simon's gritty Baltimore-based nonfiction books Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner -City Neighborhood (co-authored with Edward Burns) eventually became highly praised TV series on NBC and HBO, respectively. He's now the executive producer of HBO's breakout show this season, the fictional, Baltimore-based cops-and-crooks saga The Wire.

Lippman's thoughts about the virtual crime dynasty she and Simon are building in Baltimore are mixed. "If anything, I feel guilty about the fact that most of the crime stories I tell are not the true stories," she says. "The true story is, another 15-year-old black kid was shot to death last night." Simon, Lippman feels, may be doing the better job of getting those stories off of the street and into the public consciousness. "Perhaps the challenge which [he] has met that I have not is to take the reality and make a riveting narrative out of it."

Lippman is selling herself short. Though not ripped from the headlines, Every Secret Thing combines the classic elements of an urban mystery with the depth and feeling of the best literary fiction. Like a modern-day Theodore Dreiser, Lippman uses a merely sensational story to explore the explosive intersection of race, class, and human frailty in a Baltimore neighborhood.

The novel begins with the haunting image of the wet footsteps of two 11-year-old girls, Ronnie Fuller and Alice Manning, disappearing into the pavement on a hot summer day. Ejected from a birthday party, the two girls kidnap a baby, then murder her. The child, Olivia Barnes, is the daughter of Cynthia Barnes, a spokeswoman for the mayor and also--not incidentally--the daughter of a prominent Baltimore judge. Ronnie and Alice are white. The Barnes family is black.

Seven years later, when the girls have been released from the juvenile justice system, young girls begin to go missing again. The truth about Ronnie and Alice's original crime and of the new spate of child abductions come together to form a catalog of betrayal, missteps, and concealment. In the end, the novel reveals not only the girls' secrets but also the secrets of those most touched by the tragedy--a pompous public defender, a disgraced journalist, the police officer who originally found the child, and two mothers who cannot forget.

Every Secret Thing is alternately told from the point of view of each of the above characters, a conceit that Lippman updates from Richard Price's 1992 novel Clockers. "Clockers is all male, so I knew you could sit down and have a crime book told entirely from the point of view of men, and no one would ever notice," Lippman says. "I just thought, I'm going to write the toughest crime novel I can where all the main characters are women. I would tell people, 'I'm writing the most hard-boiled book that ever began with a Barbie doll.'"

Tough is right. Readers will find that Every Secret Thing ventures into territory far more dangerous and disquieting than Lippman's Monaghan-led Charm City romps. Getting away from Tess--and from her identification with Tess in the eyes of fans--proved liberating.

"Because I knew that this book would never be read as autobiography," Lippman says, looking serious, "I was much freer to raid the darkest parts of my mind to write it."

Accessing the darker parts of herself at the time wasn't as difficult as it might have been. When Lippman began Every Secret Thing earlier this year, she was still smarting from a dustup with Sun management, who had exiled her from Calvert Street to a Baltimore County bureau and forced her to see the staff psychologist, eventually leading her to terminate her contract with the paper in January 2002. Lippman believes the transfer and her subsequent strained relationship with management were put in effect to show younger reporters that "outside work meant nothing." (Lippman discussed what she terms a "Gaslight-like harassment" in greater detail on her Slate diary.

Ironically, the loss of her job at the paper may have proved the biggest boost to Lippman's career since an editor's comment almost a decade ago that she "couldn't write" led her to pen her first novel, just before she turned 34. After writing her fiction on the side for years, the suddenly full-time novelist "felt very strongly that I had to make my writing life chaotic," Lippman says. "I knew I could write the [next] Tess book, but in February I began working on the early chapters of this book, and in March I wrote my agent and said, 'I've just signed a new deal and they're paying me more money, but I really want to write this book about two 11-year-old girls that kill a baby.'

"It's been a pretty charmed thing. [HarperCollins] gave me permission to [do Every Secret Thing], I turned it in, and they went nuts for it," Lippman says. "When this happened, I hadn't even gone into hardcover. My books had been widely reviewed, I had won a ton of awards, but. . . ."

Lippman says she went into journalism in the first place to support herself while fulfilling her larger creative goals: "I always wanted to write fiction. I was very pragmatic, and I knew that if you wanted to write for a living, you pretty much had to go into journalism." It also ran in the family; Lippman's father, Theo Lippman Jr., is a prominent editorial writer for The Sun (now retired but still an active contributor; his most recent piece ran in June).

"My dad's life looked great to me," Lippman recalls. "I saw him as a guy who got paid to go into an office and write up his opinion--because I thought that's what an editorial writer did. He had time to play handball on his lunch hour. And he also had lots of copy paper--they used to bring home rolls of copy paper for us to use as drawing paper--so I thought, That's OK--that's the life. "

When Lippman's editor at The Sun told her she couldn't write, she was a seasoned reporter who had also worked at Waco, Texas' Tribune-Herald and The San Antonio Light before returning to her hometown to take a job at the now-defunct Evening Sun. "It was a very new criticism for me," Lippman says. "I'd gotten through 12 years of journalism garnering a lot of praise for my writing, but it focused me. And it got me to go home and start writing a book."

"Everything good that ever happened in my life is because I went to the same summer camp as [Slate editor in chief] Jacob Weisberg," Lippman says. Weisberg--incidentally or not--is the son of Lois Weisberg, the subject of a much-disseminated 1999 Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker that discussed how certain people's roles in life are to know and introduce everybody to everybody else. "[Jacob Weisberg] moved to D.C. right at the same time I moved back to Baltimore," Lippman explains. "And he would have these fabulous parties. Mickey Kaus, Malcolm Gladwell, Atul Gawande, Larissa MacFarquhar--I met all these people through Jacob. I met Andrew Sullivan [former editor of The New Republic and Right-wing gay blogger] when he was an intern at The New Republic--I knew Andrew before he was out!"

It was at one of those parties, in the early '90s, where Lippman met Michele Slung, editor of the popular women's erotica compilations Slow Hand and Fever. Slung published Lippman's first story; after she wrote the second one, Lippman recalls, Slung told her, "I think you can write a novel--I'll find you an agent."

Lippman chose the crime genre for her first book-length foray because her early stories, she claims, lacked a certain bite. "In my 20s, I kept trying to write that same sensitive, coming-of-age kind of story. Like, there's a girl, she's so tall, she's so sensitive . . . "

Crime, Lippman thought, would keep her from devolving into a mash of plotless solipsism: "If you have a crime story, something's happening. I do feel like it's a really raw category that can encompass a lot." It was also, like Weisberg's parties, a happening place to be. "I happened to wander into crime writing at the same time as a lot of interesting people. George Pelecanos [who currently writes for The Wire] is a mentor and a friend. Dennis Lehane is another person [who's like], 'Yeah, I happen to write crime novels.' And there are a lot of people like that."

Lippman was embraced by mystery readers and writers almost immediately. In a review of her first novel, 1997's Baltimore Blues, that ran in The Sun, journalist and author Terry Teachout exhorted, "More, please," and Lippman complied, cranking out six more Tess novels in the next six years. Matched binding to binding, sales of Lippman's plump paperbacks didn't approach those of, say, a Grisham or a Grafton, but her reviews were far more laudatory. Writing in The Village Voice, Elizabeth Pincus declared that there was a "pulpy little thrill in finding the best mystery writing around within the gaudy, palm-sized pages of a mass-market release" (fortunately, Morrow released Lippman's most recent Tess mystery, The Last Place, in a more befitting hardcover) and The Washington Post declared Tess a "cranky treat."

Still, although Lippman's witty Tess series has routinely earned her laudatory spreads in large-circulation dailies like USA Today, The Denver Post, and The Washington Post--to say nothing of various radio interviews, television spots, and Web dedications--Lippman remains that curious thing: A writer's writer who has still somehow managed to elude large-scale fame. There is almost a note of pathos when the notoriously staid Economist feels compelled to join the chorus of praise in its well-worn tones of gravitas: "Laura Lippman," writes Steve King soberly, "is one of the most polished and consistently interesting writers of detective fiction in American today."

Which is why, despite her grounding in the crime genre, her new book is being marketed as a "stand-alone novel," the phrase that is peppered throughout her publicity materials and reappears in subsequent reviews and blurbs. (Publishers Weekly did stick "mystery/suspense" in front of the oblique moniker, ostensibly so readers would not think Lippman had abandoned the genre entirely.)

"Crime took me in and never disdained me, so I'm there," Lippman says. "When this book came along, I actually wrote a memo to [publishing company William] Morrow that said, 'Don't you dare market this as a literary book. I'm a crime writer.'" She pauses and frowns, perhaps picturing literary types with interesting glasses snapping up stacks of the tome at Barnes and Noble: "Some of these crime writers have gotten really carried away with themselves."

The words of another crime writer Lippman heard interviewed on National Public Radio's The Diane Rehm Show, James W. Hall, boil down her philosophy on the divide between literary fiction and so-called genre fiction. "He started teaching a class on bestsellers, and, by his account, it really changed the way he thinks about books," Lippman says. "People come into MFA programs wanting to write literary novels, but his idea was, try to write a literary novel that everyone wants to read. Of course, it's almost impossible, but it's a great goal to have."

That was her goal, Lippman says, during the writing of Every Secret Thing. "My little mantra was, 'This is what a literary novel would be like, if literary writers could plot.'"

If "literary" means filled with smoothly turned prose and well-drawn characters, Every Secret Thing is literary. But Lippman didn't abandon her journalistic chops entirely. "I had covered juvenile services early in my career in The Sun, so I had been to Hickey [School], I had been to a lot of places," Lippman says, explaining how she drew on former contacts and experience reporting on the juvenile justice system in Baltimore to craft credible characters and situations. "But the Baltimore County department is very closed off and very anti-PR. And that actually became a plot point. There's two things that are true [in the book]--the lab really is on the top floor, and the elevators are really slow."

She also met with Baltimore police officers to help her work out some of the knottier organizational and chain-of-command points: "We sat there with an organizational chart for the Baltimore County police department to figure out plausible reasons why homicide cops would be investigating a missing child case." She then dialed former contact Susan Leviton, a professor of law at the University of Maryland. "I asked her, 'If you commit a really horrible crime when you're 11, do you go away until you're 18?'" Lippman recalls. "And she said, 'I don't know for a fact. But I think you can only get three years in Maryland.' And I liked this idea so much that I said, 'I'm not going to research it anymore.' Juvenile laws are always changing, so whatever I wrote in a year would probably be wrong anyway."

Her reporting experience also helped Lippman control the ultimately impressive--but sometimes unwieldy--dual plot lines. "If you've been a journalist," she says, "the one thing you know is that everything can be fixed. I spent a year on the rewrite desk in San Antonio. Sometimes you'd get a story, and it was like deboning a fish. It's messy work, but nothing fatal--you just had to think about it. So I really worked hard at the plot of this book. I kept going back and rethinking and rethinking and saying, 'OK, well, how could this be?'"

But though the heft and structure of the book benefits from her journalistic experience, writing fiction, Lippman explains, is an entirely different process from straight reporting work. "There was a certain trancelike state that took over during parts of it--moments that I felt like I was at a Ouija board and I was just receiving," she says. "I created all the characters and I created all the circumstances, but everything that followed from there seemed rather logical to me." Lippman pauses, then, like the former features writer she is, gropes for the explanatory metaphor. "I'm not actually musical, but I know that if you listen to music, patterns emerge, notes occur. I do think there's kind of a sense that emerges--if you don't cheat what you set out with."

Part of what Lippman set out with in this book are the memories of her own childhood in Baltimore. Unlike her Tess novels, the heart of the tragedy of Every Secret Thing lies firmly in Dickeyville, the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood on the city-county line where Lippman was raised.

"Leakin Park is there," Lippman says, speaking of the dense, woody jungle where she set the murder. "And when Ronnie goes down that dead-end road with that pervert, they're at the end of Wetheredsville Road, probably about 100 feet from the house I grew up in."

Dickeyville also contains the ideal--and rare--demographics demanded by the plot. "You would have to look pretty far and wide for a plausible place for an upper-middle-class black family to be living within six blocks of lower-middle-class whites," Lippman says, referring to area that encompasses the homes of both the murderers and their victim in Every Secret Thing. "For the purposes of the story, I also knew it needed to be close to the city-county line--a total Baltimore obsession, of course, but it's pretty important."

The county line--which serves as an integral plot point throughout Every Secret Thing--also serves as a metaphor for all the divisions the novel explores: most obviously, those of race and class, but more subtly, those of Baltimore's past and future, and of the inexorable choices women make that shape their lives. The novel's epigraph states that God will bring "every deed into judgment," and there is a kind of holy terror in how Lippman brings each character into close proximity with the blackest center of her self. Some succumb, and some don't.

"This book is in part about how we shape the stories of our lives--it's about narrative," Lippman says, discussing how some of the women are unjustly toppled and some--still unjustly--prevail. "It's about the consequences of assuming you know the story just because you know a couple of the facts."

It's also about how women can be haunted by their former selves. "I am fascinated by good girls and bad girls, because I think most women have been both at different points in their lives," Lippman says. "If you live long enough, you will cross back and forth over the line." Reader, beware: Deceptive appearances were integral to her early plot. "I always knew that the bad girl isn't that bad, and the good girl isn't that good," she says cunningly.

In a funny nod to the power of these roles, HarperCollins commissioned a sly and sexed-up author photo for this book by swank author photographer Marion Ettlinger. Her new dust-jacket look stands in stark contrast to the nice-girl-next-door images gracing Lippman's previous works. Asked about her reaction to the newly sophisticated image, which is plastered all over Every Secret Thing's publicity materials, Lippman gives a wry smile. "The comment was," she says, "'Well, this will bring you a new and better class of stalker.'"

New likeness aside, Lippman awaits reaction to her sans-Tess venture with a certain measure of trepidation. "When I was writing this book, I didn't know it was that dark. I thought, It's just a story that's true as I see it," she says. "As the early responses were coming in, I've sort of been reminded . . . it's really dark." Tess-o-philes should not fear, though--the next mystery in the series is currently being polished. It's set in Baltimore, of course, and the plot, about an Orthodox Jewish furrier whose family inexplicably disappears, sprang from a piece that never ran in The Sun.

"I wanted to deal with Jewish stereotypes," says Lippman, whose grandfather, Isadore Lippman, added German Jew to her primarily Scotch-Irish mix. "People think there's the Pikesville reform family and Hasidic Jews and nothing in between. Also, I'd done a story at the paper about celebrating Passover in prison, and every Jewish person I knew asked me, 'There's Jews in prison?' And then they'd answer themselves: 'Oh, but for, like, financial crimes.' Actually, I'd met three guys, and two of them were murderers.

"[Also], I thought that Tess, who is just sort of a cultural Jew who doesn't really know anything about her religion, has never practiced--that she would have a great perspective on the whole thing."

Lippman laughs at herself. "I'm becoming obsessive on the subject of narrative," she says. "But everyone is sort of struggling with, What's the true story? What's the narrative of my life?And I think that grows out of being a reporter, where you realize you're always at risk of making these glib calculations. Especially at the end of my reporting career, I became especially convinced that you never know anything about anyone."

Which may explain why, at the end of the day, Lippman repeatedly returns, like a literary criminal, to the scene of her first novel--searching for the clue that will unlock the mysteries of Baltimore as easily as those of Chinatown.

"I'm trying to tell stories about Baltimore--that's important to me. To keep bringing this place forward and examining and reexamining. I just love it so much, and I just find it so hard to make a coherent case for that," Lippman laughs. "If [I lived] in Boulder, Colorado, you can say, 'Oh, of course you love it!' With Baltimore, some people get it and some people don't."

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