Tess goes Hollywood, at home

The Baltimore Sun

Another Thing to Fall

By Laura Lippman

William Morrow/HarperCollins / 326 pages / $24.95

Laura Lippman knows Charm City, inside and out. Her mysteries are as much about the complexities of Baltimore as they are about crime, who commits it and why. Another Thing to Fall, the former Sun reporter's 10th novel featuring P.I. Tess Monaghan, reveals yet another side to Charm City. And perhaps its seamiest yet.

Monaghan usually takes on complicated crimes and inevitably ends up working with the Baltimore P.D., either overtly or covertly. In Another Thing to Fall, Monaghan becomes embroiled in the internecine world of a big-budget TV production filming in Baltimore.

Lippman knows that world almost as well as she knows Charm City itself. She's married to David Simon, creator and executive producer of HBO's critically acclaimed The Wire and co-creator and producer for Homicide: Life on the Street.

Thus the specifics of Lippman's latest mystery, where Hollywood comes to Baltimore, have her usual verisimilitude, and then some.

The novel begins with Monaghan -- herself a former reporter for the Beacon Light -- sculling at dawn a month before Thanksgiving only to find herself in the middle of the "perfect shot" on the set of Mann of Steel, a sci-fi-cum-period-piece mini-series about a steelworker who travels back in time to woo Baltimore debutante Betsey Patterson.

Once Monaghan is literally fished out of the river and brought back to the production area to shower and have her clothes attended to, she is cajoled into taking a job as bodyguard -- or is it baby-sitter? -- for a Lindsay Lohan-type starlet, Selene Waits.

The fragile, wraith-like Waits -- all of 20 and playing one of the 19th-century characters in the series -- is bedding the co-producer, Ben Marcus, and behaving badly. The previous summer while the staff was scouting for the show, a suicide was discovered in a house nearby. The dead man, Wilbur Grace, was a stalker in possession of numerous photographs of young children, and also of Selene. The discovery left everyone involved in Mann of Steel just a little nervous. Since production began in earnest, however, there have been a series of incidents. Small, but problematic. Fires, break-ins, someone putting hair remover in the star's face cream, shadowy figures in the production area after dark. Steelworkers -- the few remaining in the city -- have also been staging protests of the series, making life difficult for production manager Charlotte "Lottie" MacKenzie, who is on-set to maintain the bottom line.

Monaghan's first day on the job doesn't go well. She tours the set with the officious young assistant, Greer. She sits with the project's head writer, Philip "Flip" Tumulty Jr., son of the Hollywood director and mogul, Philip Tumulty. She banters with Marcus and grimaces at how the show's star -- and her childhood crush -- Johnny Tampa, has run to seed at only 42. Then her cell phone goes off, she ruins yet another take and she exits stage left.

On Monaghan's first night of baby-sitting for Waits, the actress lures her out to dinner -- in New York City. The long limo ride gets them to NYC close to midnight and Monaghan finds herself chatting with up-and-coming bad boy star Derek Nichole in a trendy bistro while Waits uses the ladies room. One margarita later and Monaghan wakes up in the limo, alone, at dawn, heading back to Baltimore. Waits and Nichole drugged her drink and sent her packing. Is Waits behind the unsettling events at the set? The set-up suggests so.

But when Monaghan returns to the set musing on this possibility and preparing to tender her resignation and her retainer, she finds one of her favorite BPD detectives, police tape and a host of cruisers. While she was gone, the young Greer was murdered -- viciously beaten to death. Was Greer murdered by her fiance, who was jealous of her job and left on a fishing trip at 2 a.m. the night of the murder? Or was Monaghan's trip to New York meant to keep her out of Baltimore for a reason?

There are suspects galore, but precious few leads as Monaghan tries to figure out what's really going on at the Mann of Steel production. Meanwhile, someone else is stalking Waits and won't be content until he finds her and get what he wants.

What sets Lippman's novels apart from standard detective fare is her examination of Baltimore and how she peels back the layers of her characters to reveal who they really are and how they got that way.

Another Thing to Fall sets up a series of very intriguing premises, and opens the world of TV production. But unlike previous Monaghan novels, Another Thing to Fall is more setup than follow-through. Readers get more from five minutes with bad-boy Derek Nichole than from pages and pages with Selene Waits. Flip is, well, flip. Marcus is a dark creature, but Lippman barely skims the surface with him. And if we hadn't met Monaghan's boyfriend, Crow, previously, would we find him believable at all?

Nevertheless, despite some shortcomings, Lippman is incapable of writing an un-compelling mystery, and Another Thing to Fall, while not as astute or haunting as the award-winning Every Secret Thing or What the Dead Know, is still far above the usual mystery fare. The plot is good, the characters well-designed, if not fully fleshed out, the entree into Hollywood intriguing and Baltimore front-and-center, beautiful, bleak and bellicose in equal measure.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including eight mystery collections and the Madison MacKenna young adult series. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is at work on a novel about Trotsky in Mexico.

EXCERPT

"That had been his first visit to a movie set, more than 25 years ago. No - wait, his memory was playing tricks on him. It was only after seeing Diner in the theatre that he realized that the movie had been made here, in Baltimore. He had been almost sick over it. What were the odds that Hollywood would ever return? ... He opened his scrapbook. There were articles and photographs about every production that had ever come to Baltimore, and almost every year, like the groundhog, another John Waters film. ... He didn't get Waters, his insistence on making things look the way they really were. Who needed movies for that?"

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