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January 28, 2009

Hardly Knew Her by Laura Lippman

Though I am not sure if Laura Lippman is so literary, it must mean something that from her writing I learned the word “postprandial.” Her novel What the Dead Know was absorbing, well written and a treat to read, so deserving of its many accolades. Unusual for a genre writer, Lippman has won significant mainstream critical acclaim, and the position of her books on various bestseller lists is a demonstration of her popular appeal. And perhaps my indecisiveness in regards to Lippman’s literary-ness is more to do with the vague boundaries of that genre than the genre Lippman herself is writing from.

The latter genre is crime fiction, detective fiction. Lippman is perhaps best known for her series of novels featuring Tess Monaghan, Baltimore P.I., though she’s written other strand-alone books too. Her novels are plot-driven, fast-paced, page-turners thick with popular appeal, and so (pardon my bias) I was surprised to find such substance there too when I read her What the Dead Know.

In his essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights”, Michael Chabon discussed “the modern short story.” Pointing out the form’s roots in genre, in that, “As late as about the 1950s, if you referred to “short fiction”, you might have been talking about… the ghost story; the horror story; the detective story; the story of suspense, terror, fantasy, science fiction, or the macabre; the sea, adventure, spy, war or historical story; the romance story.” This as opposed to the kind of story dominating the form today, which he terms “the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story.” (Whether or not his assessment is fair is an argument for another day.)

Chabon posits that many great contemporary novelists have “plied their trade in the spaces between genres, in no man’s land.” That some of the more interesting short story writers at work today are toiling away in similar locations. He writes, “Trickster haunts the boundary lines, the margins, the secret shelves between the sections in the bookstore. And that is where, if it wants to renew itself in the way the way that the novel has done so often in its long history, the short story must, inevitably, go.” (And if I remember some of the best of the Salon de Refuses correctly, the short story is often there-going already).

And so I was pleased, upon finishing Chabon’s essay, to remember that I had a book of Laura Lippman’s short fiction just waiting to be read. Though Lippman’s own straddling seems mainly just on the border between “genre” and “actually good,” this collection would be different from any other collection of short stories I’ve read lately. And I was interested to see how a collection with such decidedly popular appeal might serve to inform my thoughts on short stories in general.

Lippman’s Hardly Knew Her contains a novella, numerous crime stories, two Tess Monaghan stories, as well a fake news profile on Monaghan whose byline is Lippman’s, and is headlined “The Accidental Detective” in homage to Anne Tyler (who, like Lippman, lovingly renders Baltimore in fiction). The crime stories in particular are riveting, employing sleights of hand near-impossible to see coming. Most remarkable are Lippman’s ordinary narrators whose homicidal tendencies are as surprising to the reader as they must have been for the victims. The ruthlessness of these characters, complicated by the fact that we’re not always called on to sympathize with them, or we simply can’t, or (even worse) we find that we do! Suggesting the many ways in which ordinary people do terrible things in their lives, and that ordinary is just a veneer after all.

The thing about a book like this is that it takes the form right back to its roots, and could make any ordinary reader fall in love with the short story. The ordinary reader who thinks he doesn’t like short stories, doesn’t get them, hates being left hanging, how they’re not quite his money’s worth. (These people exist; we don’t hang out with them much, but I’ve met them. They’re the people not buying your latest story collection). But any reader seeking entertainment, amusement, distraction will find herself caught up in these stories, one after another, and perhaps realize the form is alive, vibrant, and altogether relevant to their reading experiences. Opening up the form, so perhaps the reader might seek some more of it, in admiration of the short story’s so neat and so sprawling containment. Of how every short story is really such a trick all along.

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