The Last Place by Laura Lippman
Review by James R. Winter

I don't know what it is lately, but it seems every PI writer these days wants to write a serial killer novel. From Lawrence Block to Dan Simmons, the serial killer has become the trendy case for someone's eye to crack. I'm waiting for Sue Grafton to pen R Is for Repetitive, so Kinsey can get her shot.

It's easy to get jaded by all this. At some point, you think you're reading the same book over and over, or you've stumbled onto John Sandford's Prey: The Lost Episodes. Once in awhile, though, some gems shine through. Simmons, for instance, doesn't alternate between first and third person the way a lot of writers are doing these days. It's straight third person, where the serial killer is just one of the cast. In fact, in Simmons' Hard Freeze, the serial killer has become a pawn in Joe Kurtz's survival game before he even knows Kurtz exists. Along with Michael Bracken's All White Girls, it's one of the three most original takes on the PI vs. serial killer tales in the last two years.

Which brings us to Laura Lippman's latest, The Last Place. The beginning, written off-font and in present tense from the killer's point of view, doesn't promise a good story. In fact, this sort of cliché needs to be retired. Soon. But stick with it -- the killer, in this case, is sufficiently deluded, crafty, and not nearly as oblivious to what he is as you might think. Get past that, and you get to the kick-ass start of Tess Monaghan's seventh outing on Baltimore's mean streets. In it, Tess and usual sidekick, Whitney, teach a pervert a lesson about luring Whitney's niece over the Internet for sex. It's one of those satisfying things that could happen in real life, should happen, but never do.

But Lippman's not big on fantasies and seldom skimps on consequences. By chapter 2, the former reporter-turned-PI is in court-ordered therapy for her "assault" on an innocent pervert. Seems the judge thinks Tess has some anger issues. (Well, gee, don't we all?)

Cue Whitney to the rescue. A charity Whitney works with wants to look into unsolved domestic violence cases, a job she thinks will distract Tess from her probation. They give Tess a random list of unsolved and seemingly unrelated deaths, one of which is a hit-and-run.

Tess takes it on as busy work only to find that two of the cases are connected, and one of the women not only wasn't murdered, but is alive and well in suburban Baltimore. Soon, she learns, the list is not so random, and that she is actually at the center of the case.

The killer's moments are few and far between, appearing just enough to ratchet up suspense. That's good, because these little interludes usually distract, falling between every chapter in most other books. By the final third of the The Last Place, they disappear completely. Tess and her ex-cop partner, Carl, know who their killer is by then, know he's after Tess, and have even visited his childhood home. Why bore readers when, as Lippman does, you've already established him as nuts, creepy, and well in the shadows?

Lippman supplies a good amount of dead ends and red herrings, favoring mystery over suspense. We know Tess is not hard-boiled, and Lippman doesn't try to make her that. Tess doesn't even pack a gun until the final act, when common sense almost demands it.

The cast of characters in this one is interesting. There's Carl, the former toll-booth cop, who had a nervous breakdown when he discovered one victim's head in the middle of a road. The case has become his obsession. There's Tess's therapist, Dr. Armistead, who asks Tess a few questions she'd rather not answer, because it might mean she really does belong in therapy. Then there is the island of Notting, in Chesapeake Bay. Forgotten and largely ignored by mainlanders, its inhabitants make up a quirky, strange collective character of their own, distrusting outsiders with an almost frightening intensity.

The city of Baltimore plays a smaller role in this one. The story moves around throughout Maryland, northern Virginia, and eastern West Virginia. Tess is a bit out of water in this one. Lippman uses the opportunity to illustrate Maryland's cultural divide, that the state is more than just Baltimore and suburbs. Even more so, Tess's pursuit of the killer now stalking her almost ties the entire series in a neat little bow, explaining one of the key events in Tess's life.

This could have gone careening into yet another serial killer thriller, but Lippman's killer, who, like Dan Simmons' Hansen, changes identities as often as most of us change cars, is more of a lens through which to look at Tess Monaghan. We do learn about his world, why he is what he is, and even how he tried to stop. In the end, he serves the story, rather than just serving up the Dahmer du jour. Which is good. After Hannibal Lecter, Baltimore really doesn't need another genius, brutal serial killer. This one's no genius, just interesting. In the end, he simply exists to develop Tess Monaghan as a character.

So Tess bags herself a serial killer, and Lippman pulls it off without resorting to cliché, which is nearly impossible these days. Now, can Tess go out and do a regular case next time? How about finishing off the pervert from chapter 1? I'd pay money to see that -- $23.95, to be precise.

The Last Place
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 2002
341 pages
Buy this book

Review submitted by James R. Winter, November 2002. Welcome aboard, Jim.

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