“The Last Place“ is the seventh book in a mystery series about Baltimore, MD detective Tess Monaghan from real-life Baltimore Sun reporter Laura Lippman, whose previous novels, “The Sugar House,“ “Baltimore Blues,“ “Charm City,“ “Butcher‘s Hill,“ and “In Big Trouble,“ have won the Edgar, Agatha, Shamus, and Anthony Awards.
Like fellow Baltimorians film makers John Waters and Barry Levinson, she loves the city she lives in and has found it a rich backdrop for her well-conceived series, whose strongest asset is her savvy, wise-cracking, independent former reporter turned private investigator Monaghan.
This is a woman who knows what to do with a perp stalker from the Internet who needs to be taught a lesson: pretend to want to meet and be alone with him, slip him a taste of his own medicine in the form of a date-rape drug, slather him with depilatory cream, and leave him in a public place to come ro. The end result should be that he wont repeat his sins again, but the act also puts her into court-ordered anger management sessions with a shrink.
Seven must be a lucky number for Lippman, because this is hands-down the best effort in the thriller genre since “The Emperor of Ocean Park“ and “The Beach House“ earlier this summer. The author has clearly not been content to rest upon her previous successes and adds a number of new twists in this outing, most notably, that heroine Tess is being watched from the very beginning of the tale by stalker shell soon encounter in a game that gets more dangerous by the minute.
Lippman sets the scene from the first chapter, where Tess and her best friend are musing over what can be done to teach a lesson to the creep a young relative has met through the Internet:
“It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Tess Monaghan was sitting outside a bar in the Baltimore suburbs. It was early spring, the mating season, and this bland but busy franchise was proof that birds do it, bees do it, even Baltimore County yuppies in golf pants and Top-Siders do it.
“Kind of a benign hangout for a child molester,“ Tess said to Whitney Talbot, her oldest friend, her college roomie, her literal partner in crime on a few occasions. “Although it is convenient to several area high schools, as well as Towson University and Goucher.“
“Possible child molester,“ Whitney corrected from the driver‘s seat of the Suburban. Whitney‘s vehicles only seemed to get bigger over the years, no matter what the price of gas was doing. “We don‘t have proof that he knew how young Mercy was when this started. Besides, she‘s sixteen, Tess. You were having sex at sixteen.“
“Yeah, with other sixteen-year-olds. But if he came after your cousin -- “...The two friends stared morosely through the windshield, stumped by the stubborn deviancy of men. They had saved one girl from this pervert‘s clutches. But the world had such a large supply of girls, and an even larger supply of perverts. The least they could do was reduce the pervert population by one. But how?...It had been six weeks since Whitney had first come to Tess with this little family drama, the saga of her cousin and what she had been doing on the Internet late at night. Correction: second cousin, once removed. The quality of Mercy was definitely strained, weakened by intermarriage and a few too many falls in the riding ring.
And perhaps Mercy would have been a trimester into the unplanned pregnancy she had been bucking for, if it weren‘t for a late-night hunger pang. Mercy was foraging for provisions in the kitchen when her computer-illiterate mother had entered her bedroom just in time to hear the sparkly thrush of music that accompanies an IM and seen this succinct question: “Are you wearing panties?“ Within days, Mercy‘s hard drive had been dissected, revealing a voluminous correspondence between her and a man who claimed to be a twenty-five-year-old stockbroker. Mercy‘s parents had pulled the plug, literally and figuratively, on her burgeoning romance.
But by Whitney‘s calculation, that left one miscreant free to roam, continuing his panty census.
It had been Tess‘s idea to search for Music Loverr in his world. With the help of a computer-savvy friend, they created a dummy account for a mythical creature known as Varsity Grrl and began exploring the crevices of the Internet, looking for those places where borderline pedophiles were most likely to stalk their prey.“
After the attack on the potential molester and as a distraction from the therapy shes been ordered into, Tess agrees to look into a series of unsolved homicides that cover the past six years. The assignment comes at the request of a wealthy Baltimore benefactor who was a mentor to Tess early in her new career and has been linked to the murder of Crow, a former, younger boyfriend of Tess.
Each of the deaths in the series seems linked by domestic violence, and little else, but Tess begins finding clues that point to involvement by a serial killer. As she connects seemingly random dots, along with the help of a retired police officer obsessed with the cases (after finding the head of one of the victims in the middle of a bridge), a cat-and-mouse game ensues that looks like it could lead to her being the next victim. Even more frightening is the dawning knowledge that the unifying factor in the crimes is Tess herself.
Lippman draws her protagonist and predator closer together in a page turning dance that has a number of underlying themes, including class privilege, Internet stalking, and the way violent crime can shatter the lives of both a victim and their family members. This is a taut, engrossing tale that emerges as the best of the series so far. If you havent met yet Tess Monaghan, this is the opportunity to do so.