Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Laura Lippman's Hardly Knew Her: A Review

Female writers are often terrified of their own literary talent. They take refuge in writing mystery novels where they can vent their artistic frustrations through describing fictional mutilations, torture and dismemberments they inflict on their female characters. The most violent, gruesome descriptions of torture inflicted on women and children can be found exclusively in mysteries written by women. Tess Gerritsen and Lisa Gardner, for example, specialize in scenes of female torture and debasement that are almost too painful to read.

Many people have tried to figure out why this happens. Elizabeth George, for instance, recently wrote an article on the subject suggesting that this occurs simply because readers don't care enough about male victims. Describe the murder of a man in your novel, she says, and it is guaranteed not to sell. I feel, however, that female writers create mystery novels that are so much angrier than male mysteries because they experience a degree of frustration in their daily lives and creative endeavors that is unknown to their male colleagues.

Not all female mystery writers cultivate the excessively gruesome variation of the genre. The amazingly talented Tana French and Laura Lippman write really great fiction that masquerades as mystery through a half-hearted addition of a couple of dead bodies here and there. While Tana French seems to be moving to a stage in her writing where dead bodies become more perfunctory than ever with every new novel, Laura Lippman still isn't ready to quit pretending she is a lot less talented than she is. Hardly Knew Her is a collection of Laura Lippman's short stories that are so good they could almost be compared to Joyce Carol Oates's. There is some sort of a crime in each of them but this collection is so much more than that.

Lippman's stories explore various ways in which women sell sex for money. The stories are very different, they are narrated in very distinctive voices and are set in extremely different social surroundings. Still, each of them addresses the relationship between sex and money in a way that is always insightful and fresh. Cheap didacticism is alien to Lippman. Among her female characters who sell their bodies in a variety of inventive ways, the only one who has character and integrity is a career prostitute. She is, of course, despised by housewives who believe that selling themselves just to one man is somehow better. Lippman makes it very clear that her sympathies lie with the honest, resourceful prostitute and not with the spoiled housewives who go to great lengths to convince themselves of their non-existent superiority:
“Is there anyone who works harder than a stay-at-home mom?” Ditchdiggers, she thought. Janitresses and custodians. Gardeners. Meter readers. The girl who stands on her feet all day next to a fryer, all for the glory of minimum wage. Day laborers, men who line up on street corners and take whatever is offered. Hundreds of people you stare past every day, barely recognizing them as human. Prostitutes.
This kind of honesty is not easy to find in a genre that is addressed to an overwhelmingly female audience. The desire to keep the housewives happy and cater to their tastes has been the downfall of many an entertainer. Thankfully, Lippman is not one of them.

Laura Lippman lives in Baltimore, and most of her stories are set in this city. The few times that she ventures to other settings, her stories lose in quality. The only part of Hardly Knew Her: Stories that I didn't enjoy too much was a story set in New Orleans. On home turf, however, Lippman is brilliant. Her love of Baltimore and her profound understanding of its history make her stories fascinating to those of us who have an emotional attachment to this beautiful city.


Pagan Topologist said...

I think Steven Barnes is correct that in every culture people are much more horrified by violence against women than against men. Men are always much more likely to be killed violently than women are, statistically. (I cannot post a link; this grew out of a discussion on his facebook page, and probably only his friends can read it. I think, however, that he has posted something similar on his blog, )

I don't have tiome now to search his blog.

In this light, any author who writes about violence against women is accessing the built in emotions of humans to get a strong response from readers. I don't know whether the emotional reactions are cultural or biological, but they are pervasive.

Anonymous said...

Hola compañera. Lippman is one of those authors that await on my shelves, and that I will read some day. However, this is just a comment on Lippman writing about New Orleans. If we consider Lippman as the great woman behind David Simmon, that explains why she wrote about New Orleans (Treme), and now what I'm interested on it's that story and her view of the city... just saying ... I'll talk to you about it...

mari said...

I did a search for Laura Lippman on Twitter looking for other people who have either read or are reading her latest novel, I'd Know You Anywhere, and arrived here. I've got this kind of dark, painful feeling in the pit of my stomach as I read it, wondering what the ending is going to bring. Very Lippman. Anyway, I didn't know she wrote a collection of short stories, so I'll check those out soon.

Clarissa said...

I was wondering which novel by Lippman to read next, so thank you for the recommendation, mari.

Clarissa said...

Colega: I'm horribly ignorant so I don't even know who David Simmon is. Let me go research him online.