Earlier this year a prize was launched to honour crime novelists who avoid all sexualised or physical violence against women. As Laura Lippman muses, not one of her books would have been eligible. “I was like; I’m never going to qualify.”
Over the course of 23 bestselling books and 20 years, Lippman — who is married to The Wire creator David Simon — has documented all manner of brutality towards women (and men), much of it sexual. Her characters have been murdered, kidnapped, assaulted and worse. She has written about prostitutes, abusers, crime lords and crooked politicians, some Jewish, most living in her adoptive hometown of Baltimore. Her most famous creation is Tess Monaghan PI, who juggles the demands of her job with those of her half-Jewish, half-Irish extended family.
Lippman, who began writing novels while still a journalist at the Baltimore Sun, admits her books can be gory. In And When She Was Good, a henchman has his hand pulped in a shredder; her newest, Sunburn, involves a knife through a heart.
“I’ve always tried to write about rape and other crimes against women from a pretty empathetic feminist point of view,” she tells me. “The problem is the primary way women die by homicide [in the United States] is at the hands of someone known to them. Books about over-the-top serial killers that stalk people for no discernible reason and then dispose of their bodies in these incredibly imaginative ways can be fun, escapist fare, but they don’t really tell us much about how we live. I’ve really been interested in exploring the vulnerability that women face every day.”
As a reporter, she had the so-called poverty beat, covering welfare reform, homelessness, and juvenile delinquents, and her books are as much about social studies as they are crime stories. “It was really natural to work those topics into my books, especially because Baltimore is a very poor city. I was writing about the world I saw.”
She bridles at the suggestion a friend once made that her books might be misogynistic, because so many women die in them. “In my books women are killed and women kill, and this has been true for my entire career,” she says. “My primary concern as a female writer is that I want lots of women in my books and I want them to be carrying the action. If that means that sometimes they behave badly, at least they’re not standing around waiting for the male hero to come home.”
Sunburn’s heroine, mysterious Polly, who abandons her husband and child on a beach, is very much in charge of her destiny. “She doesn’t dither at all,” agrees Lippman. “She’s been solving her problems for a very long time.”
The book, although as much a pageturner as her other novels, is something of a departure. Written in what Lippman describes as “a stripped down, noir tone”, it is inspired by James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and is undeniably dark.
Ordinarily, Lippman aims to write in a likeable style, so that people think she herself is “a nice person, telling you a nice story even though there are all these crime elements in it”. With Sunburn, she consciously moved away from that. “Polly showed me the way in terms of not caring if anybody liked me, I’m going to be tough, because that works for the story.”
Polly is uncompromising in her commitment to telling her own story, and having other people listen; a message that resonates especially right now, in the context of the #MeToo movement.
“Women are really angry and it’s sort of bubbled over. Men are nervous, wondering will they get in trouble for using a word or not catching on fast enough. The thing that is different is women don’t feel that urgent about comforting them right now,” she says. “And right now my tendency is to shrug and say no one said dismantling the patriarchy was going to be easy.”
Tess Monaghan, Lippman’s fictional PI, who has appeared in 12 of her books, might well agree. Pragmatic and competent, she’s someone you’d like to have a drink with, but you wouldn’t want to get on her wrong side. And she is emphatically not a version of the author herself, stresses Lippman; she wrote her as Jewish-Irish to make that clear.
For, despite her surname, Lippman is not Jewish. Her paternal great-grandparents, Ike and Annie, were, arriving in the US from Lithuania (or possibly Poland; David Simon, who is fascinated by genealogy, is trying to find out), before settling in Montgomery, Alabama.
Her grandfather had little interest in the religion, and married into a Protestant family, bringing his son up a Christian with no knowledge of Judaism whatsoever. “I learned more about Judaism in my Sunday school classes as a Presbyterian than my dad ever knew,” she recalls.
Despite this, Judaism in various forms became a part of Lippman’s life; sent to a Midwestern summer camp, it turned out to be 90 per cent Jewish, while as a babysitter in college she spent time preparing kosher meals for a rabbi’s daughter. And sadly, because of her surname, she received antisemitic hate mail as a journalist.
“It was years before anyone at my camp figured out I wasn’t Jewish,” she laughs. “Because of my surname… I had this experience of being assumed to be Jewish, almost the equivalent of what people call passing.”
In creating Tess, she drew on this. “Because she has this Irish-Catholic last name and she’s got freckles, people often assume that she is one of them, and she often hears incredibly antisemitic stuff,” Lippman explains. “A lot of us travel through the world with our identities not being incredibly clear. It’s the things that we hear when people think they know who we are but they’ve got it wrong that are often most illuminating.”
Yet in a perhaps unlikely plot twist, Lippman — the non-Jew so often mistaken for a Jew — is bringing up a Jewish daughter. “Judaism is a very important part of [David’s] cultural identity, his favourite joke is the synagogue that I fail to attend must be conservative,” she says.
While her husband’s first wife converted and their son was raised as Jewish, Lippman made clear early on she wouldn’t do the same. “I said I will easily happily raise our daughter in the Jewish faith, I myself will not convert because I’m not going to be non-observant in two religions.”
Now seven, their daughter attends Hebrew school twice weekly, and Lippman is effusive about their synagogue and their rabbi. As often as possible, the family have Friday night dinner; Lippman has even baked challah and fried latkes for Chanukah.
Crucially, it’s an exclusively Jewish household. “The rule that I made was I don’t care what religion we pick but we’re picking one,” she says. “I don’t believe in this smorgasbord approach where it’s like I’m Jewish but I get to have a Christmas tree. We’re Jewish and we observe Jewish holidays.” At Christmas, Santa visits but “offsite” at a babysitter’s house.
Lippman says bringing her daughter up with a religious identity is important to her. “I had one, I think it’s an interesting intellectual experience,” she says. “But I also don’t believe in just doing it all.”
Her next book is a return to her traditional style, although she hopes to revisit Sunburn’s hardboiled tone one day. Inspired by Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, it is “so Jewish”, with a heroine called Madeleine Schwartz whose life is transformed after an old boyfriend shows up.
As a writer of crime thrillers, often featuring troubled women, Lippman was mining this territory long before Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train and the many books that have come in their wake. She is amused rather than frustrated with the way people often dismiss the genre as not quite literary enough, or say they like a book “in spite of” it.
“People tend to think literary novels are defined by their best and genre novels are defined by their worst,” she suggests. “The difference is that the worst crime novels, the lowest common denominator can still be satisfying in a way really mediocre literary fiction can’t be.”
As for suggestions we are at “peak” crime novel, Lippman is sanguine. “I’m just there percolating on my own steam and not worrying too much about what’s in fashion,” she says. “Different types of crime novels will come in and out of fashion but the crime novel itself will always be robust.”
Sunburn is published on March 3 by Faber & Faber (£12.99)