Investigating Mother(s)

Kim Kankiewicz on Laura Lippman’s Hush Hush: A Tess Monaghan Novel


Whenever I leave my son, Jack, home alone, we rehearse the rules before I leave: Don’t open the door if the doorbell rings. Don’t answer the phone, unless my name shows up on caller ID. Don’t go outside. Keep the doors locked and the blinds closed. After I’ve reached the grocery store or post office, I call home to check on Jack. My first question, after a general how’s-it-going, is whether anyone has called or come to the door.

It’s not that I fear for my son’s safety. Jack is twelve, and I trust him to finish his homework and stay out of trouble while I run an occasional errand. What I fear is that someone will discover I’ve left him at home. The rules are not so much to protect him from intruders as to protect me from scrutiny.

As a mother, I am subject to potential criticism in everything I do. This began when I was pregnant and naively ate a tuna sandwich in public, and it intensified during Jack’s infancy, when my approach to feeding and sleep training were apparently matters of national security. When Jack was a high-energy toddler with a baby sister (she’s nine now and still accompanies me on errands, thank you), strangers constantly fretted about his mobility. Iwas criticized for letting him run ahead of me on the sidewalk and forstrapping him into a stroller. Fellow grocery shoppers advised me to let Jack walk when he was seated in the cart and to confine him to the cart when he was trotting down the aisle.

If we’re fortunate enough that our parenting decisions are criticized rather than criminalized, why do we feel so threatened? In part, I think, it’s the sense that people are in our faces but nobody has our backs.

As my children grew, people who were not raising them offered opinions about where the kids attended school and the healthcare they received, about my approach to discipline and my decisions about childcare. The comments are less frequent now, if only because my children spend less time under my direct supervision, but the judgment is still there. Just recently, a woman I hardly know condemned both me and my kids’ piano teachers for allowing the kids to opt out of a recital performance.

This is the brave new world facing private investigator Tess Monaghan in Hush Hush, the long-awaited latest installment in Laura Lippman’s Baltimore-based mystery series. When readers last saw Tess in The Girl in the Green Raincoat, she was sleuthing while pregnant and on bed rest. Now the daughter born at the end of that book, named Carla Scout, is a spirited three-year-old with an independent streak rivaling Tess’s own.

Tess and her partner, retired police detective Sandy Sanchez, have accepted a job assessing security for the infamous Melisandre Dawes. Twelve years earlier, Dawes willfully left her infant daughter in a hot car to die and was acquitted of murder after pleading insanity. She’s returning to Baltimore after a decade in exile to reunite with her teenage daughters and to film the reunion for a documentary. Tess’s assignment becomes more complicated when Melisandre hands over some vaguely threatening notes she’s been receiving. Soon Tess is investigating a poisoning and a separate murder while fielding her own ominous notes.

I’ve been anticipating Tess’s comeback case as if I have a stake in her success as a crime-solving mother. As a mystery fan with children at home, I’ve sought out serious detective fiction that reflects my reality. The pickings are slim. Fictional PIs who are mothers of young children typically populate the pages of “cozy” mysteries. I’m happy to see a gritty investigator like Tess Monaghan take on parenthood with the same imperfect effectiveness that’s characterized her throughout Lippman’s series.

I’m glad to observe that while motherhood has intensified her tendency toward self-doubt—“Tess had always had her share of feeling overmatched and incompetent, but nothing made her feel like more of a failure than being a mother”—Tess and her boyfriend, Crow, have made a good life for their small family. What’s more, though she’s acquired a minivan named Gladys and a predictable evening routine that she performs “like a zombie,” Tess has hardly become boring. If anything, she’s more nuanced. “She had been so self-centered,” Tess acknowledges, reflecting on her previous life with “only herself to tend to.” Now she is attuned not just to Carla Scout’s needs but to the complex inner lives of the people around her. As she navigates the novel’s intricate plot, Tess becomes more intimately acquainted with friends and family members and empathizes even with people who wish her harm.

The irony is that while motherhood has made Tess more cautious about judging others, it subjects her to constant judgment. “Every day, she was judged a dozen times—and almost always found wanting,” Tess reflects as she’s met with “stares and smug glances” when Carla Scout throws a tantrum at the grocery store. After calming Carla Scout and returning home with her groceries, Tess discovers a note written in block letters on the back of the store receipt: “YOU MAY HAVE GOTTEN A LICENSE TO BE A PI, BUT YOU’D NEVER GET ONE TO BE A MOTHER. YOU’RE A CRAPPY MOTHER.” The writer of the note is clearly unhinged, but Tess is less fearful of the messenger than the possible truth of the message itself.

It’s an inspired moment, the discovery of that note, in which a stalker becomes menacing by attacking a mother’s identity. Being labeled a CRAPPY MOTHER is a real fear. Constantly aware of our own inadequacies, we worry that we’re not good mothers and that everyone else recognizes our failure.

Constantly aware of our own inadequacies, we worry that we’re not good mothers and that everyone else recognizes our failure.

Why is this fear so intense? If we’re fortunate enough that our parenting decisions are criticized rather than criminalized, why do we feel so threatened? In part, I think, it’s the sense that people are in our faces but nobody has our backs. Motherhood simultaneously violates our privacy and isolates us. Tess glosses over her private life with strangers, referring to her boyfriend as her husband, because “enough of her life [is] hanging out in public” in the form of Carla Scout. Meanwhile, another character in the novel—a stay-at-home mother—recalls “entire days in which she spoke to no one but grocery clerks and the disembodied voice that took her order at the drive-through Starbucks.”

Isolation pervades domestic life. Writing for the Washington Post, essayist Tracy Cutchlow argues that this sense of isolation contributes to a troubling phenomenon: cases of people who, beyond passing judgment, call the cops on parents who leave their children unattended. “We can’t rely on our neighbors to help look out for our kids,” Cutchlow writes, “and that’s why our neighborhoods don’t feel safe enough.” To restore community, she recommends individual actions like inviting neighbors to dinner or attending neighborhood events.

But how does such advice help someone like Debra Harrell, a low-income single mother arrested for letting her daughter play at a park while she worked at McDonald’s? Individual action is necessary, but it is not adequate—or even feasible—for parents who are disadvantaged by structural inequality.

Ultimately, this is what’s missing from Hush Hush: exploration of the larger world in which we raise our children. Tess resists judging other parents—even Melisandre, who, regardless of her mental state at the time of her infant’s death, behaves abhorrently throughout the novel. The problem is that Tess is so reluctant to scrutinize other people that she is unable to scrutinize a culture that burdens mothers with full responsibility for their children’s welfare and judges the way they carry that weight. Beyond a passing reference to “women without money who didn’t get the help they needed,” Tess does not scrutinize a system that disproportionately polices poor and minority mothers.

A novel can’t be about everything. Hush Hush invests in its characters’ interior lives to great effect. But what does it mean that Tess, who has delved into social issues in previous books, mostly ignores them in Hush Hush? Lippman once told an interviewer: “I don’t think Tess can have a baby and continue in this series…I think she could get married but I think the minute you give your character a child, the reader’s tolerance for some of the things Tess does just disappears.” Lippman was referring to the risky behavior Tess indulged in as an investigator, but she may as well have been addressing Tess’s political outspokenness; both are absent from this new book. For all its strengths in plotting and characterization, Hush Hush unintentionally reveals a societal weakness. By withholding the political from the domestic, the novel mirrors a real world that ensnares mothers in the judgment trap and withholds the means for escape.

Kim Kankiewicz is a Seattle-area writer and reviewer for publications including the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Pacific Standard. Find her online at and tweeting as @kimprobable.

Hush Hush: A Tess Monaghan Novel by Laura Lippman • William Morrow, 2015 • 320 pages

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