Monday, September 22, 2008

Tess Monaghan: Knocked-Up P.I.

Not since Dan Quayle, he of ‘potatoe’ fame, railed against The Murphy Brown Show’s depiction of an unwed mother has the collision of vice-presidents and the topic of unwed mothers been given such media (and peanut gallery) attention. It turns out the uproar over Brittany Spears’ kid sister’s much-discussed pregnancy a few months ago was just a teaser. The real deal is the unwed seventeen-year old mother-to-be lurking in Vice Presidental candidate Sarah Palin’s little family-value-driven family.

As I write this, I have no idea if Palin will be the history-making vice-president of these United States, or an upcoming question in a future game of Trivial Pursuit, but for the last week or so, the opinions (and the proclaimed opinions on whether or not American’s should even be having such opinions) on the young Miss Palin’s fertility have been raging around me. At work, at home, and most places in between.

Is it our business? Should the choices politicians’ (or their children) make in their personal lives be off-limits for discussion? What about politicians who want to impose restrictions on the choices the rest of us make in our personal lives? Is Miss Palin’s choice to bear a child her constitutionally protected right (and her actual choice) – or what her mother would want to be the law (and what she wants her daughter to do)?

In the event of an unplanned, out-of-wedlock marriage, what would you do? What would I do? And more importantly, what would a well-established and much-beloved private eye do?

That’s the exact predicament in which Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan finds herself in "The Girl in the Green Raincoat," her newest case (hot on the heels of the 2008 publication of Another Thing to Fall….)

Not that Lippman planned it this way. The whole Palin Pregnancypalooza was probably as unexpected to the author as pregnancy was to Tess.

Throughout its long and diverse history, the P.I. genre has offered us an astounding array of detectives: male and female, black and white, Mormon, Christian, Jewish, Moslem and atheist, gay, straight and other, old, young, big, small, thin, fat, and even freckled. There are virgins and satyrs, drunks and nuns, losers and winners. But the number of private eyes with actual children are few and far between.

Oh, sure, there’s an occasional more-or-less grown child around (Robert E. Bailey Art Hardin is an actual middle-aged family man with a wife and three kids) but younger children are usually mentioned only in passing, or conveniently shuttled off-page and into the custody of an ex-spouse (Warren Murphy’s Trace). Even the rise of so many female gumshoes since the eighties has not seen a dramatic climb in the number of shamuses with children. Kinsey, V.I. and Stephanie remain as footloose and child-free as Philip, Sam and Lew did in previous generations.

But having your gumshoe not just be involved with children, but actually be with child? Now that takes balls.(And, er, eggs).

Only a few precedents spring to mind, most notably Max Allan Collins’ ground-breaking comic book Ms. Tree, whose pregnancy and subsequent birth and even breast-feeding (in a comic book, no less) in the early nineties were so far ahead of the curve that there was no curve. Then, of course, there was the notoriously misguided 1999 television adaptation of P.D. James’ Cordelia Grey, which had the previously rather virginal gumshoe inexplicably bearing a child. James was reportedly so taken aback by this plot development that she publicly complained that “they made Cordelia into an unmarried mother and a totally ineffective and silly girl. They've rather stolen my character, really.”), vowing she’d never write another book with the character.

But Tess is no virgin. Or some lunkhead teenager -- she knows where babies come from. She’s a grown-up woman, able to make up her own mind. In a world of hard-boiled superdicks (and janes) with their chiselled-out-of-granite moral codes and Uzi-toting sidekicks, Tess is the weird, messed up kid sister we all had – or wish we did. She's loyal to a fault, opinionated, funny, clumsy and alternately endearing and enfuriating, honourable and sly, a high-minded idealist only half a step away from telling fart jokes, the accident constantly waiting to happen. She's not Everywoman, so much as Anywoman, hrr life ruled as much by accident as carefully made plans. So it seems only natural that eventually she’d end up unexpectedly pregnant, despite all precautions.

Even better, we’ll all be able to follow along, because Laura’s not going to do this in a short story tucked away in an anthology, or even in a novel which not-so-loyal readers may or may not buy (although Laura’s become such a contender on the bestseller lists lately it’s hard to believe anyone doesn’t buy – or at least know of -- her books).

Nope, Tess’ birthing pains are being played out in as high-profile and public a literary forum as possible – they’re being serialized in The New York Times Magazine, beginning with the Spetember 7 issue and running until, well, until it doesn’t (actually, Laura says it will run for 15 episodes, which means that it should be wrapping up about the same time this year does... and you can even read it for free, as far as I know, online. without being a subscriber.

Think of it: a weekly serialization of one of the ballsiest tales a P.I. will be involved in this year, by one of the genre’s best selling authors. With the Sunday Times wrapped around it. Lippmann and her husband, both ex-newshawks (he does some TV show called THE WIRE), must be rather pleased. Or something.

As Ronnie Hawkins once put it in The Last Waltz, “Big time, Robbie, big time.”

As the story kicks in, Tess, already into her third trimester, is bitching to his best gal pal Whitney that she’s being held hostage, and demanding wine and pizza, while Crow, the father to be, hovers like a mother hen, wrapping her in a quilt and generally driving her crazy. Bed-bound, Tess demands a pair of binoculars and busies herself watching people walk their dogs in the park across the street. Her attention is piqued in particular by a girl in a green raincoat and her dog. And then one day, the girl doesn't show. Think Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, trying to deal with a possible murder and, not a broken leg, but high blood pressure and fluid retention.


You big tough, steely-eyed gents want gritty realism? Forget back alleys, mean streets and automatic weapons, and try to take on talk of diaphrams, preeclampsia and daycare.

I've read a lot of P.I. stuff, and a lot of series, but this has got to be one of the ballsiest moves in the genre since Chandler tried to marry off Marlowe. "The idea has been rattling around for a while," Lippman confesses, "I thought it would definitively end the series; I was less sure at the end, but I don't know where Tess will go. When I was asked to write a proposal, I saw instantly that I would have lots of folks coming to Tess's sick room, talking about love and family."

Indeed. It's going to be a high-wire balancing act, but if anyone can pull this off without getting cute, or turning this into a Lifetime movie-of-the-week, it's her.

Will Crow videotape the birth? Or, more likely, will Tess have to shoot him to get him out of there? And what happened to the girl in the green coat?

I'm not sure -- and Laura's not telling -- but I'm know what I'm doing every Sunday morning for the next few months, as soon as the coffee is made...

And Tess? Yes, this columnist does accept chocolate cigars.

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Blogger Guillaume said...

Hey Kevin, are we agreeing on something for once? I find funny too that Sarah Palin wants to decide for millions of Americans the outcome of unwanted pregnancies, while in her case it's a private matter.

About pregnant PIs/mother PIs/PIs with children, I think we don't see them often because families in fiction take up space and maybe are perceived (rightfully or not) as getting in the way of the story. I don't remember mentions of the family background of early detective stories (Sherlock Holmes being the exception, then again it is if you consider him a PI). And children get old, thus making your PI character grow older with them, which can be problematic. Family relations can be at the basis of fascinating plots, but are tricky to use.

1:53 PM, September 23, 2008  
Blogger Ann said...

Check out Ayelet Waldman's funny and excellent Mommy-Track Mysteries series for a great frequently pregnant detective.

9:29 PM, February 03, 2009  

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