Happy Silver Anniversary to Laura Lippman who made her debut as a fiction writer in 1997 during her 15-year tenure as a Baltimore Sun reporter. Her celebratory gift to avid fans and new readers alike is Seasonal Work (William Morrow), an electrifying collection of short stories, which includes a compelling new novella. Lippman is a literary luminary, shining as brightly as the towering, red neon Domino Sugars sign that proclaims “Home” to returning Baltimoreans. The city is as essential to both setting and character as the Old Bay Seasoning that flavors the fabled Charm City crab cakes. A surgical patient administered a general anesthetic is rendered unconscious after counting backward to about three, and Lippman’s readers are captivated by her spell in about five words. (This avid reader only recently discovered her writing and has since been voraciously reading through her back catalog.)

Seasonal Work is divided into four parts, with three stories in each section, and concludes with the novella “Just One More. Some stories are darker than others, but as the author states in the Afterword, “it was nice to be reminded I can write stories in which no one dies.” Devotees of Lippman’s Tess Monaghan series will not be disappointed; the tender-hearted yet tough private investigator and her vibrant Aunt Kitty are featured in the first two stories. Tess’ parents, Judith and Patrick, recurring characters in this award-winning series, justifiably become the protagonists in “The Everyday Housewife.

TESS MONAGHAN CRUSHES A CHRISTMAS CON MAN’S PLANS

The title story, “Seasonal Work,” is set in December when flimflam man Gary chooses Baltimore to work his version of the Christmas miracle in which he dishonestly earns enough to avoid legitimate employment during the coming year. This annual hustle involves changing his and his children’s names and relocating to a carefully researched, medium-sized city, renowned for its community services and relatively mild winters. He checks into a low-rent motel and launches a well-publicized, tried and untrue, hard-luck story. Using his three adorable tiny tots as photogenic bait and their cynical 14-year-old stepsister as kiddie wrangler, he portrays himself to the press in the most positive light. 

Then, this charlatan claims to be a temporarily unemployed man who used his long-awaited disability check to purchase gifts for his darlings only to have everything stolen from his truck. He piles onto the fabrication with additional claims that his wife deserted them, never revealing that the family has received social security benefits since her death several years ago. He clinches his woeful tale by misquoting Anne Frank and sympathetically laments the thief must have needed these things more. “Gary” then awaits an outpouring of charity in the form of cash, food, clothing and expensive gifts. Before returning to their home state of Texas, he tosses the checks, sells or redeems most of the gifted items for cash, and leaves before anyone recognizes his scheming ingratitude. It’s a scam that works well until Tess Monaghan smells fraud. 

IF YOU LIKE PIÑA COLADAS OR GETTING CAUGHT IN “MURDER CITY”

Lippman reflects on the darker side of life in her relationship-centered murder mysteries, novels and stories with canny, dangerous women cast as antagonists. They lure and kill and prove they are the deadliest of the species through a variety of methods. The end piece, “Just One More,” updates 1979’s popular song “Escape (The Piña Colada Song).” In Rupert Holmes’ original song, a couple in a stale relationship separately place personal ads seeking someone new. In Lippman’s novella, after months of pandemic lockdown, Kelley and Tom are similarly bored and persuaded by their best friend Amy to experiment with a dating site to prove their compatibility. The resulting story is delightfully intriguing and nearly impossible to put down. 

In Lippman’s fictional world, people do get away with murder with maddening frequency, just like in the real city of Baltimore, which advertisers nicknamed “Charm City” in the mid-1970s to lure tourists discouraged by its daunting reputation for crime. It has fewer than 600,000 residents but has been justifiably called “Murder City,” averaging more than 300 homicides annually, 60-70% of which have remained unsolved for several consecutive years. It’s a beautiful place to live, in certain neighborhoods, and an ideal setting for crime stories. The author is married to former Baltimore Sun crime journalist David Simon, the creator/writer/television producer of The Wire, The Corner and Homicide: Life on the Streets. One might wonder what they discuss at mealtimes.

Seasonal Work is a welcome new book for established fans of mysteries, crime thrillers and general fiction as well as a great introduction to a fine contemporary writer. There is plenty of fodder to spark spirited conversations among book club members. Baltimore has served as inspiration and/or home to generations of writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, John Waters, Anne Tyler and Edgar Allan Poe (who is buried there). Baltimore and Lippman are boon companions, and one hopes to see many more novels and stories in the future.


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Photo by Leslie Unruh

Laura Lippman debuted her first novel in 1997. Since then, she has been recognized as a distinctive voice in mystery fiction and named one of the “essential” crime writers of the last 100 years. Over the course of her career, she has won major awards in her field and been translated into more than twenty languages. She currently resides in both Baltimore and New Orleans with her daughter.