Trace my IP address

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Mysterious Disappearances, a Dog, & an Unlikely Voyeur

I’ve always had what you might call a like/dislike relationship with short stories. In their favor, they perform a useful function: providing some escapist entertainment when reading time is limited. They’re like little morsels in the buffet of storytelling, (hopefully) palatable and (generally) easily-digestible... although rarely approaching the level of delicacies.
Of course, the same thing which makes them desirable--their brevity--can also be their downfall. Too many short stories come across as incomplete pieces of what must (or should) have been a larger whole, leaving me unfulfilled in the end... as though I’d sat down at a table famished, prepared for a small feast, but had been served, instead, a 100-calorie bagged snack.
After looking through my stacks of books (which are still pretty much everywhere) recently, and spying several skinny little volumes peeking out from between the much larger ones--not to mention all those shorties I keep having to thumb past on my Kindle’s home page--I decided that, like it or not, it was time to tackle another one. And by that, I mean anything--regardless of whether or not I was really in the mood for it--as long as it could be classified as “wee”. (No, that’s not how I usually go about choosing my next hopefully-really-good read, but sometimes circumstances just beg for drastic measures, you know?)
Fortunately, this was one decision that involved no agonizing on my part (a rarity in itself, given my track record with over-analyzing everything), because as soon as I spotted this particular little book, hiding all-but-forgotten in a teetering stack, it was obvious my choice had been made... and that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊
In The Girl in the Green Raincoat, author Laura Lippman utilizes the constraints of the short story form to very good effect, giving readers of her long-running Tess Monaghan mystery/crime fiction series something we haven’t seen before: both a tidy, pared-down case featuring the always-likable and entertaining Baltimore private investigator, and some brand-new insights into a few of the secondary characters.
The premise--although novel to the Tess series--is actually a take on the classic Hitchcock movie, “Rear Window”. [Let me pause just long enough to insist that if you haven’t seen this fabulous movie--starring a dashingly-melancholy James Stewart and an ever-radiant Grace Kelly--you seriously need to correct the oversight. For some intelligent and classy thrills, chills, and romance, it’s nearly impossible to beat. Go... rent it, buy it, stream it, whatever. Just watch it, okay?] But back to the topic at hand. In the movie, a man amuses himself while convalescing at home by watching what his various neighbors across the courtyard are doing in their own apartments (yes, spying on them)... until one day he witnesses what may (or may not) be a murder!
In Lippman’s spin, Tess is heavily (and surprisingly) pregnant, suffering through her third trimester. Following a scary episode which landed her in the ER, she’s been placed on strict bed rest for the duration. (The fact that the normally active p.i.--a very hesitant and uncertain mother-to-be, at best--finds herself in the middle of an honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned “confinement”, does not sit well with her, at all. Or lie well with her, as more aptly describes her enforced, semi-recumbent posture.)
After realizing that there are serious limits to how much reading, TV-watching, and even ‘net-surfing one can do from the (dis)comforts of one’s bed, Tess takes to looking out the window on the activity in the street below, watching the neighbors’ houses and the park which borders their neighborhood. (It should be noted that she finds nothing particularly odd about this; people-watching is not only an acceptable past-time to her, it’s an activity with which most private detectives--Tess included--are intimately acquainted.)
Before long, the bored p.i. notes certain patterns. Young mothers push babies around in strollers (although she tries not to think too much about all of that) and elderly couples enjoy their daily constitutionals when the weather is nice. Joggers and bicyclists, intent on getting their workouts in, whiz by in blurs of color and movement, no matter the weather. And, of course, the grassy park is a natural magnet for anyone walking or exercising a dog (another thing which isn’t dependent upon Mother Nature’s clemency). 
Perhaps because Tess, herself, has a greyhound--or maybe due to the brilliant green color of the coat, standing out in such sharp contrast on an otherwise grey day--but after the first time she spies an attractive young woman walking her dog, Tess starts making it a habit to watch for them each day. Rain or shine, they appear almost like clockwork--the woman always wearing the same bright green raincoat, always talking on her cell phone, and always being led by her high-stepping greyhound.
Until one day, that is, when Tess spies the familiar racing dog tearing through the park unattended, leash flapping in the wind... but mysteriously without a girl in a green raincoat frantically trying to catch up.
And the day after that, neither one of them appear.
Tess frets, concocting all sorts of possible scenarios--none of which have happy endings. Seeing how agitated she’s getting (which is unquestionably dangerous for both her and the baby), her boyfriend, Crow, and best friend, Whitney, allow themselves to be co-opted into canvassing area neighborhoods for the missing woman and dog.
Rather than soothing Tess’s jitters, what they discover further escalates her fears: the dog, now being sheltered by an anxious mother with two small children, who had found him wandering down their street. Unwilling to keep the highstrung (or noisy, neurotic, and incontinent) creature any longer, the woman foists him onto Crow and Whitney and closes the door in their faces. 
Upon their (semi-triumphant?) return home, Tess feels vindicated for her concerns. She renews her efforts, scouring the newspapers and local TV news, desperate to read or hear any info about a young woman who has gone missing (or been found). The ex-reporter/currently-benched p.i. puts all the skills she can manage from her prone position to use, trolling the web and making phone calls... until she finally hits on a way to figure out the missing woman’s identity.
She is--or was--married... and this isn’t the first time her husband has been involved in the disappearance of a significant other.
But, as always, there’s so much more going on than just what meets the eye...
❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ ◊ ❊ 
The fun in almost any mystery, of course, is the build-up to the final denouement, that “gotcha” moment when the reader knows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, who the bad guy is, as well as the why behind it all. The same holds true for The Girl in the Green Raincoat ; there’s some nice suspense--plus a few nifty little surprises--along the way to the grand finale (which is, for the most part, a satisfying one).
As is typically the case in a Tess Monaghan book, though, it’s the characters themselves--including the city of Baltimore, which has a character all its own--and their intertwining relationships, which provide the real meat of the story. Lippman imbues each one of them with believable traits, quirks, habits, and personalities, from Tess all the way down to the minor players we see only rarely (or even just once). It’s incredibly easy to get sucked into a story when you find yourself interested in--and caring about--what happens to the characters. (Plus, Tess has dogs, and--as any animal-loving reader will attest--you should never underestimate the appeal of reading about a character who adores his/her pets. That kind of stuff just never gets old.)
As I mentioned earlier, this short story is unique in the Tess series because it offers some new looks at old things; for instance, for the first time ever, we view events (at least, for a brief period) through best friend Whitney’s eyes, which gives a completely different perspective on things. I really enjoyed that. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the series, you definitely can read this as a stand-alone, if you like; there's enough explanation that you won't be lost. Series fans, on the other hand, should take note that this isn’t one of those non-essential “extras” authors occasionally put out as part of an anthology; The Girl in the Green Raincoat doesn’t merely add a little something to Tess’s story, but rather it continues that story. And, after everything that takes place, it should really be interesting seeing what Lippman envisions for Tess next. 
GlamKitty Catnip Mousie Rating: 4 out of 5 mousies

[Note: Laura Lippman is not only the author of several highly-acclaimed Tess Monaghan books, but of a number of gripping stand-alone works, as well... and she has earned pretty much every major award in crime fiction for her efforts. If you haven’t read her work before, you should definitely give her a try. :)]