Tess Monaghan, Laura Lippman’s Baltimore-based reporter-turned-private investigator, has incorporated motherhood fairly smoothly into her life. Crow, her boyfriend and the father of her child, oversees the family’s super-healthy diet and fully shares in parenting duties; Tess loves immersing herself in mother-daughter nesting time; and she’s learned to cope with mid-store toddler meltdowns, to grin and bear it when 3-year-old Carla Scout announced “Mommy juice!” as Tess buys wine.
Plus, Tess’s brain gets a vigorous workout: Everything “must be named and quantified, according to her . . . daughter. Carla Scout had recently asked Tess to name and count the moles on her body and Tess had chosen the names of first ladies. Martha, Abigail, Dolley, Lady Bird, Nancy, Mary, Jackie, Pat, Betty, Eleanor, Michelle, Hillary — it had been an interesting test of her memory.”
So “Hush Hush” explores a particularly unsettling situation when it couples Tess, here taking on the role of private security consultant, with new client Melisandre Harris Dawes who, 10 years earlier, allowed her 2-month-old daughter to die in a car on a hot day. Melisandre was acquitted on a criminal insanity plea, disappeared abroad, and has returned to reunite with her two surviving daughters, now teenagers.
But there’s more to the story than that.
Melisandre has hired a filmmaker, Harmony Burns, to make a documentary about the insanity defense using Melisandre’s story as an example and hopes to film that mother-daughters reunion. Even as Harmony goes about the business of interviewing the former nanny, the former day camp counselor, and a former family friend, things go from reality-TV bizarre to sinister: Both Tess and Melisandre receive strings of anonymous notes and, before too long, more than one person comes a cropper: This novel isn’t just about a decade-old crime, it immerses you among the claustrophobic, still-active ripples that are holding the surviving family members hostage.
Suspenseful and tightly-plotted mystery aside, Lippman brings her characters to vivid life whether you see them in passing — the handsome cop who “had a few acne scars, but they only made him more attractive, the way a flaw can, sometimes” — or catch a deeper glimpse of their story. Sandy Sanchez, Tess’s business partner who collects “words the way some people collected butterflies, impaling them on pins, considering them from all angles,” is quietly savvy and a terrific leveler, possibly the most grounded character in the book despite his own family tragedy.
Then there’s Melisandre, deftly captured by the specificity of the kind of spell she’s capable of casting over others: “Since the day they met, in a suite at Claridge’s four months ago, Harmony had felt as if she were in a circle with a snake charmer, swaying to her tune.”
But Lippman also designates an exceptional level of soul and empathy to a teenager who appears to be utterly self-possessed — applying “Supernanny” techniques as required in order to cope with her erratic sister — while being acutely aware of a sadness inside of herself, “a hole through which everything leaked oh so slowly . . . She wanted to make everything okay. But could anything ever be okay again? . . . [W]as it so wrong to wish that she could have been born into a happy family?”
In this novel that’s as much about mothers, daughters, and family dynamics as it is about who done what, when, and why, it’s this bewildered but insightful teen whose voice is the most insistent — and the most riveting.
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.