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Charm City, Laura Lippman, Avon, $5.99.

Charm City by Laura Lippman

A quick peek at Laura Lippman's website shows her multiple award nominations and wins - Charm City won both the Edgar and the Shamus awards, and was nominated for the Anthony. And I must say Charm City is prime Edgar bait - the Edgar voters love a good PI novel, and this is one of the tighter, better written ones I've read by a new author. Set in Baltimore, the city is a virtual character, much as Detroit is in Loren Estleman's Amos Walker series. Along with Baltimore, the main character is a fascinating and complicated woman named Tess Monaghan, a former reporter turned P.I. She has a complicated love and family life as well as an interesting network of friends and acquaintances. Good writers seem to be able to surround their central character with other characters as three dimensional as the main one. Lippman succeeds at this brilliantly, with memorable side bar characters like Tommy who speaks in questions peppered with malapropisms (as in "That's why they got their dandruff up?"); Uncle Spike, who even in a coma, as he is in this book, radiates a certain presence; and former best friend Whitney Talbot, a successful ultra WASP with her eye on the Tokyo bureau of the Baltimore Beacon-Light, or the "Blight", as it's better known to the denizens of Baltimore.

Not content to provide the reader with merely a great setting and cast of characters, Lippman is a whiz with a plot, throwing curveballs and twists all the way along. The central story concerns a millionaire who wants to bring a Pro Basketball team to Baltimore - thus providing the need for a new sports arena. When the Blight publishes a story exposing the financial troubles of the millionaire, the paper hires Tess to find out how the story - which wasn't supposed to run - got on the front page. Tess agrees to look for the culprit; along the way she's distracted by the savage beating of her Uncle Spike, who mysteriously leaves her an abused racing greyhound to take care of. The greyhound, Esskay, of course becomes a character, and Tess and Esskay's relationship has all the cliched bits usually reserved for man-woman relationships in mystery novels - they meet cute, hate each other, and then fall in love. Tess' relationship with the actual man in her life, Crow, is far more complex and moving.

This book kept me guessing almost the entire time, and even though Lippman uses a lot of the standard bits that are common to this particular sub-genre, she uses them in a fresh and involving way that left me definitely hoping for more Tess Monaghan. And luckily, there are lots more books. For the series enthusiasts among you, the first book is Baltimore Blues. For myself, I felt as sheepish as I did when I finally discovered Dana Stabenow late in her series - luckily, there's plenty on the shelf to be read and enjoyed, and my glaring omission can easily be rectified. Don't let yourself fall into the same trap - pick up a Laura Lippman title today!

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