Baltimore Blues is the first in Laura Lippman's series featuring reporter turned private investigator Tess Monaghan. The novel begins with Tess a bit adrift--she has recently become unemployed when the newspaper she worked for went under. To pass the time, she spends her days running, rowing, and doing odd jobs for family members to earn some much-needed cash. Then her rowing buddy, Rock, asks her to do a little discreet spying on his fiancée, Ava, who has just not seemed like herself lately. After Tess witnesses a couple of sketchy meetings between Ava and her boss, the controversial local celebrity and lawyer Michael Abramowitz, she's struggling to find a way to tell Rock that Ava's cheating on him. When Abramowitz turns up dead, however, everyone is saying that Rock found out Abramowitz was having an affair with Ava and killed him. Rock's rowing coach also happens to be a lawyer, and he hires Tess to help him investigate the Abramowitz murder and exonerate Rock.
The book has a slew of great characters, and the detailed portrayal of Tess's hometown of Baltimore provides another interesting layer. It's obviously a place Lippman knows well and loves, despite (or possibly because of) its many problems. Despite its many pleasures, the novel, which was first published in 1997, feels surprisingly dated at times. Tess's unsympathetic opinion about the rape victims she meets in the course of her investigation troubled me, and her complete awe at the workings of a library's electronic database actually made me laugh out loud. Clearly we've progressed in more ways than one. Some outdated technology and social attitudes, however, do not detract much from what is essentially a solid, well-written, entertaining mystery.
Fans of Tess will be pleased that she's appeared in twelve books altogether, with the latest, Hush, Hush, appearing earlier this year. Other similar mystery series featuring women private investigators include Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski series and Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone books.