Laura Lippman is one of my favorite crime writers and my opinion of her has only improved after this interview. It is not just that she, like me, is a former journalist, or that I live close to Baltimore, the city where most of her stories takes place. No, it is that her stories are always clever and intelligent and unpredictable.
She has just not only finished another novel in her consistently excellent Tess Monaghan series but also another project – Baltimore Noir, a collection of short stories all based in the city.
Scott Butki: How did the Baltimore Noir book/project come about?
Laura Lippman: Johnny Temple of Akashic books had a real break-out success with Brooklyn Noir, so he decided to create a franchise of sorts. As a Baltimorean, I was very pleased that the city was one of the early ones, preceded by Chicago, San Francisco, Dublin and D.C. As a local writer, I was very flattered to be asked to edit it, so I did.
SB: How would you define noir for those unfamiliar with the term, who may associate with great — but dead — writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashell Hammett? You give some interesting bits of trivia in the introduction – that James Cain and Hammett worked here and Edgar Allen Poe lived and died here. I still don't get why they call Baltimore “Charm City,” though.
LL: “Charm City” is just a slogan, coined by someone in advertising, I think. There's always been some confusion about the motto's origin. The thing is – it's sort of right by accident. On one level, it seems hyperbolic to the point of silliness to call Baltimore charming. For years, it was known mainly for the view from I-95, which I've heard compared to Dresden after World War II. But if you live here and know it and love it — "Charm City" makes sense. It's charming in a very offbeat way. It's so uncharming it's charming.
As for noir – I define it as dreamers who become schemers. Most noir stories center on people with recognizably human goals – love, money, power. In a noir novel, these people over-reach, pursue their dreams via crime – and almost always fail. Cain is a noir writer, but Chandler isn't, not by that definition, because his central character is ethical, even heroic at times, and never out for himself.
SB: What do you think it is about noir that so fascinates readers?
LL: Well, we all dream, but most of us stay within certain ethical bounds. The noir novel allows us vicarious pleasure, but it also tends to affirm that life is safer if one is law-abiding. That's the thing about crime fiction: it's a very conservative form because it champions the status quo, to a certain extent. Order has been disrupted, usually via a killing and it must be restored by book's end.
SB: What were you trying to accomplish with this project? Did you succeed?
LL: I wanted to present a variety of voices – old/new, male/female, black/white. The "Noir" anthologies have been very masculine and not particularly diverse in terms of race. I did pretty well by the first two criteria, but on race – I'm very sad that there's only one African-American writer in the collection. I'll give myself a B+ on meeting my personal goals.
SB: Which is your favorite story in the book? Why?
LL: An editor can't have favorites! Let's just say that I was particularly pleased by the work done by a few first-timers – Rob Hiaasen, Joseph Wallace and Lisa Respers-France. There's nothing more exciting than giving someone the first chance to publish.
SB: What are the benefits of having a recurring character like Tess in your novels?
LL: It's nice to have time to grow with a character, to contemplate how people change as they age and experience different things. I wouldn't say I ever feel comfortable when I return to Tess's world. I think feeling comfortable as a novelist is a danger sign. The fact is, I like Tess and I like her company, and that's the greatest benefit for me.
SB: How would you describe your relationship with Baltimore? You seem tied to it like George Pelecanos with Washington D.C. and Robert Crais and Michael Connelly with L.A. Does having most of your books based in Baltimore limit you as a writer or add another level to your writing?
LL: It certainly doesn't limit my writing. It's not for me to say if it's adding another level. Clearly, there are great writers who don't concern themselves with place. But it's an essential component of fiction to me, as a writer and a reader, and I think I'd be lost if I weren't trying to write about a specific place in a specific time.
SB: I asked George Pelecanos about this and would be curious what you think of his response.
LL: You mean the part about where he's trying to write a record of his town? I think George's ambitions are different from mine, that his vision of Washington is something larger and grander than my vision of Baltimore. For one thing, George is working against a mainstream image — the corridors of power, blah, blah, blah — that's long been entrenched in people's minds. He knows that's not the true D.C., but it's what a lot of outsiders think of first, the transient part of the city.
Baltimore doesn't really exist in anyone's imagination, for better or worse, so there's not a record I need to correct. It interests me because it's my hometown, it's what I know. Maybe I'd be doing the same thing in Atlanta if my family had never migrated north. Who knows?
SB: For many their perception of Baltimore comes from television series. Which do you think does a better job portraying life in Baltimore – Homicide or The Wire?
LL: Me. Just kidding. Let's see – if you're white and middle-class, Homicide. If you're a gay stick-up man who picks his lovers according to some sort of rainbow diversity program, The Wire. Still just kidding.
Both shows did a good job at distilling Baltimore's essence. But both shows ultimately are universal. The Wire, in particular, is not saying that these problems are unique to Baltimore. The Wire could be based in a lot of big cities. It happens to be here. The same is true of Homicide, although it was clearly influenced by the real-life men — and it was mostly men — who were in the homicide unit in 1988, when David Simon was researching the book that inspired the television show.
But The Wire has more and better Bawlmer accents, so I'll vote for that. Once you've heard the actress Tootsie Duvall say "science" — yeah, that's quintessential Baltimore. It's a thing of beauty, that accent.