I would love to meet Laura Lippman’s friend Nancy. Apparently, she is Lippman’s closest friend who has very specific friendship limits — “Nancy simply could not help me commit a crime … [she] won’t help me bury a body but would get me a good lawyer” — and, as someone who has known Lippman for 45 years, Nancy must have some terrific Laura Lippman stories.
Happily for those of us who aren’t acquainted with Nancy, Lippman made the recent decision to turn her authorial hand to the personal essay form. With “My Life as a Villainess,” her new book of essays, the former newspaper reporter and current best-selling crime-fiction novelist proves herself to be a generous and engaging source of Laura Lippman stories, an irrefutable fact you can also glean from her entertaining Twitter feed.
Lippman’s revelations about herself and her life are refreshingly candid and imbued with a seriously robust overtone of humor, a double-barreled approach that dovetails nicely with Lippman’s self-description of being “gleefully honest.” Indeed, in these 15 essays, seven of which have been previously published, she delves into various aspects of her life, from her time as an early-career reporter to her experiences as a woman, mom, friend, and writer: “Every work-at-home writer needs a way to procrastinate; mine is baking, although cleaning the baseboards with a Q-tip will do in a pinch.”
From the start, Lippman’s direct style does its work as she shares her ambitions, faults, and achievements. “I never lose sight that my dreams have come true,” she writes in the introduction. “When the William Hurt character asks the Albert Brooks character in Broadcast News what to do when reality outstrips one’s fantasies, the advice is ‘Keep it to yourself.’ But I just can’t.” And, if any further confirmation is required, the book’s epigraph consists of a loving giveaway from Lippman’s mom: “Well, she’s not shy.”
Lippman’s focus and determination shine through. She’s wonderfully no-nonsense about the fact that her writing is her work and that she has accomplished that work under all manner of life-induced pressures. She’s equally straightforward about her pragmatic outlook. “I’m a tough old bird,” she writes. “You don’t want to know what I do with my daughter’s artwork.”
But it’s also clear that she combines that discipline with a deep appreciation for life’s joys. The split-second spontaneity captured in Lippman’s decision mid-errand to the garbage dump to change course, collect her daughter from early-dismissal-day at school, indulge in a movie matinee replete with pizza and Sour Patch Kids, and then complete that errand with her daughter in tow, makes for an especially enjoyable carnival-reading-ride.
Lippman ponies up stories about being ghosted by a long-time friend; being busted for shoplifting by a policeman who could double for Tom Selleck; getting her wisdom teeth pulled out on the cheap (warning: This one may generate hair-raising heebie-jeebies); and, my personal favorite, the time that her dad wanted to find out whether his new watch was a glow-in-the-dark one. (In the interest of no spoilers in this particular case, that’s all I’m going to say about that excellent tale.)
Elsewhere, Lippman explores her husband David Simon’s friendship with Anthony Bourdain (“A Fine Bromance”), and her friendship with fellow writer Ann Hood (“My Brilliant Friend”). “Revered Ware,” an essay about a well-loved and well-battered double-boiler doubles elegantly as a tribute to Lippman’s dad: “I took over his neuroses the way I took the never-worn socks my mother had knitted for him a few weeks before his death. … My father’s quirks are my inheritance, the way I keep his memory alive.” The closing essay, “Men Explain The Wire To Me” is jampacked with Simon-related tidbits, glamorous and non, all delivered in a pleasing tumble of anecdotes and footnotes. “I have so many Bob [Colesberry] stories,” reads one quirky aside from Lippman. “I’ll settle for two here. He cowrote ‘Hot Lunch,’ the song that Irene Cara ‘improvises’ in Fame, and he was Nicole Kidman’s body double in the nude swimming scene in Billy Bathgate.”
And in “Saving Mrs. Banks,” a piece about the family nanny, Lippman’s daughter, and the brains behind intriguing meal themes such as “Tenderloin Tuesday,” “Breakfast for Dinner,” and “Around the World Thursday” demonstrates that she’s developing a singular voice of her own: “‘I don’t love Yaya more than you,‘ she says [to Lippman]. ‘Well, maybe a little more. But, really, I just love her in a different way. She might be number one, but you’re really close. It’s sort of a tie. But if I had to put someone number one, it would probably be Yaya.’”
All of which leaves me with just one question for the moment: What does Lippman do with her daughter’s artwork? I kind of would like to know.
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 288 pp., $27.99
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. You can follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.