Laura Lippman,
The Sugar House
(Avon, 2001)

Having read this book way back when and now listening to it anew on audiobook, I can say Laura Lippman has fooled me twice with The Sugar House. Its plot is so labrynthian (but easy to follow) that it can indeed do that trick.

I've read all of the PI Tess Monaghan novels and this is the best one. In her other novels, Tess's family is the backdrop as she takes on cases involving rich fur dealers, visiting movie stars, African American children and other strangers.

In The Sugar House, her family is front and center. We've known from other books that the Monaghans (and the Weinsteins on her mother's side) are politically well connected in Baltimore. Tess's father sits on the city liquor licensing board. Her Uncle Spike owns a bar, but also makes book and does "favors" for people. They have entree in both Baltimore City politics and Maryland politics. They also know Baltimoreans of dubious reputation whose last names end in vowels. It is within this network that the events of the novel transpire.

As the book opens, Tess's father asks her for a favor. A young female acquaintance of his, Ruthie, wants someone to investigate the death of her brother. Her brother was stabbed to death in prison. He was in prison for confessing to the murder of a teenage girl who, a year after the murder, still remains unidentified. Ruthie believes her brother was murdered to shut him up. She believes that by uncovering the identity of the dead girl, the motive to her brother's murder will be revealed.

That's all the plot you need to know and, believe me, it's just the beginning as Tess begins to uncover information that leads to an ugly political conspiracy.

As Tess plows ahead, she escapes traps, endures threats, dodges bullets and faces her father's wrath. But she WILL get to the bottom of this. And she does.

Lippman is not a particularly deft prose stylist, but she is terrific storyteller. And that's plenty.

book review by
Dave Sturm

28 May 2011

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