Yesterday I spent a lot of time reading the new novel Hush Hush by Laura Lippman, who in addition to writing very good literary mystery fiction also has an ongoing mystery-thriller series starring PI Tess Monaghan. Lippman’s work is all set in and around Baltimore; like Tess Monaghan, she used to be a reporter for the Baltimore Sun; she is married to David Simon, executive producer of The Wire.
The Monaghan novels are decent but not great, but then again, she sells a lot of them and I’m not in the center of her target matrix, anyway. Hush Hush was well-done, matching a narcissistic, terrible mother up against Tess, who is sure she’s doing a terrible job with her own three-year-old. Right near the end, however, I sat up and took notice when…
…Tess’ daughter and aunt were held hostage by a not-yet-identified guy with a gun. The scene of her sneaking into the aunt’s house and taking the guy out was fine and well-timed. But then the guy turns out to be some dude who was peripheral to another case: he’d lost everything and used squirrel logic to blame Tess, and had been stalking her. He had nothing at all to do with the crimes at the center of the main plot; it was pure coincidence that he showed up on the night Tess was worried someone from the main plot might try something.
None of this is really problematic. The coincidence is at least within the bounds of plausibility in genre fiction, so sure, we’ll roll with it. But what did Lippman fail or refuse to do? Foreshadow this at all. In a properly-written work of genre fiction, that case or that guy needed to have come up somewhere near the beginning of the novel. Maybe only briefly, in a throwaway line or a phone call or a list of office tasks. But the lack of foreshadowing makes me, as a reader, kind of cranky. Wait: this guy hasn’t been in the book yet, and I’m like 85% of the way through the text?
In a class on how to write fiction, this would get flagged. “Link to this in the first half of the book,” Lippman would be told. But she’s a big-name author, so nobody’s going to give her crap. It’s just jarring. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for something that’s more reflective of how real life works than something where I’m warned ahead of time. That says a lot about fiction, if you think about it.