Laura Lippman has been mixing it up lately. Long known as a top-notch crime fiction writer, two years ago she delivered a terrific essay collection, My Life as a Villainess. Last year she turned to psychological horror with the deliciously twisty Dream Girl.
Her new book, Seasonal Work, is a short story collection. Some writers are good at novels but not short stories (or the other way around); Lippman aces both.
She tells us in her afterword that, except for Just One More, a newly written novella that closes the book, its 11 short stories were written between 2007 and 2019 on request for different collections. She could have fooled me. They all read as variations on a theme, girls and women trying to fight back in a world that often doesn’t value them.
And they put on display Lippman’s skill at crafting suspense, her way of dropping a detail deep into the story that skews the reader’s perspective a little — or a lot.
The title story is a compelling example. Its first-person narrator, whose name is Kathy (or maybe not), seems like a typical 14-year-old, worried about “a zit between my brows that looked like a third eye.”
She’s worried about the zit because a newspaper photographer is shooting photos of her and her family — stepfather Gary and her three younger half siblings — for one of those holiday heartstrings stories. Seems someone broke into the family’s minivan and stole all the kids’ Christmas presents. Gary and the kids, down on their luck, are staying in a Baltimore hotel room until they can get on their feet.
The newspaper story is followed by TV coverage, and the open-hearted help from the public pours in: toys and electronics, gift cards, checks, cash. Kathy has seen it all before, for several Christmases in a row, in Phoenix and Cooperstown and whatever town Gary decides will be “just right.” Her sardonic tone makes the tale seem like a nearly harmless grift at first, but it will turn much darker.
That story also marks the return of Tess Monaghan, Lippman’s beloved series detective. She’s the central character in the creepy but touching story The Book Thing, and Tess’ parents take center stage in The Everyday Housewife, set in the 1970s, an era it captures in telling, and often funny, detail.
Nearly newlywed herself, Judith Monaghan spends her days alternating between watching The Newlywed Game and the Watergate hearings.
She has time for both: “Judith was as restless as a hummingbird and the small brick duplex required so little of her. She cleaned the woodwork with a Q-tip, vacuumed the venetian blinds, scrubbed the long-discolored grout with a toothbrush, and still she ended up with time on her hands.”
Then Judith and her stolid husband, Patrick, get to know a couple of their neighbors, Jack and Frances Delaney, who seem a little exotic for their Baltimore neighborhood. It turns out Watergate isn’t the only government drama going on; as Judith’s brother, who works for the CIA, tells her, “I guess it’s a thin line between gossip and espionage.”
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In the hilarious Snowflake Time, the first-person narrator is a formerly powerful TV pundit who tells the story of his very, very unfair downfall at the hands of a couple — well, a bunch — of man-hating women he had the misfortune to work with. But he bounces back by writing, of all things, the first in an intended series of cozy mysteries set in a town called Christmas. Golden, right? Or maybe not.
Lippman also nails a very different narrator’s voice in Five Fires. Beth is a high school student, raised by a single mom who struggles with substance abuse. Beth works to help pay the bills and observes the cool kids at her school from the outside, except for Tara, a pretty cheerleader who has struck up a friendship with her.
Gradually, Beth tells us about a scandal that rocked the town. And just when we think we understand it, and Beth, Lippman cracks a whip in the plot.
Speaking of cracking whips, Waco 1982 is another shocker. Its main character, Marissa, is a reporter working her first job, far from home at a Texas newspaper. As the story begins she jokes about assignments called “Lou’s Black Beans,” apparently random story ideas handed out by the paper’s first female city editor, Louisa Busbee Baker.
Then a bean lands in Marissa’s in-box: How about a story about what’s in the lost-and-found boxes at local motels, restaurants and tourist attractions? Marissa tries to ignore it, but Lou presses, and soon she finds herself sifting through boxes of grubby clothes and paperback books.
Then a hotel owner shows her something different: a black leather belt with an obviously valuable silver-and-turquoise buckle with the initials “CB.” That belt is a lead into a dark and disturbing story — one that Marissa can never write for the newspaper.
The last two stories, Slow Burner and Just One More, are both about women in once-happy, now disintegrating marriages. Lippman traces their psychological states in excruciatingly realistic detail as they discover, deny and finally deal with their husbands’ betrayals, with very different outcomes.
Seasonal Work: Stories
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 336 pages, $26.99