BY A SPIDER'S THREAD is the eighth book in the Tess Monaghan series by Baltimore author Laura Lippman. Lippman took a break from the series recently to write the knockout EVERY SECRET THING, which was my pick for best mystery novel of 2003. Now Tess is back, with a pretty successful private investigator business, networking with other women PI's around the country. Her private life is not so successful, though. Problems with her lover Crow gave him the excuse he needed to go stay with his mother for a time while she deals with breast cancer. Tess is alone with her two dogs and troubled after her last case resulted in her killing a man.
Furrier Mark Rubin comes to Tess with a puzzle; his wife Natalie and their three children have simply disappeared, though there's no sign of a kidnapping. Everything was perfect, says Rubin, and he wants his family back. Tess doubts Rubin's assertion that Natalie was completely happy; she feels that Rubin, a modern Orthodox Jew, is controlling and ran the household as he runs his business --- stern, unforgiving, not allowing his wife to have any money to spend. Tess's mother was a Weinstein and she's vaguely familiar with Jewish tradition, as she is with the Christianity of her Monaghan side. She's not particularly religious or observant in either faith, but she does need to understand things in order to succeed here.
The Rubins' older son Isaac knows that something is not right about the way he's living, but he's not old enough to fully comprehend what his mother has done, why they're traveling the way they are, and who her companion is. We learn as we go along as well, and it's pretty devastating. Natalie seems somewhat naïve, and while it turns out that in some ways she's anything but, in other ways she is as unsophisticated as Tess is about people's intentions and the world.
In the hands of a less skilled author, or a less experienced one, this plot might not have worked; it's a little, shall we say, imaginative and slightly hard to believe. But Lippman tells it so well that after a second or third "surprise, not what you thought was going on at all" realization, I was totally committed and I believed. It's a measure of the talent I've seen in this writer, both throughout her series and certainly in EVERY SECRET THING, where she makes you think, long past the last page of the story.
Throughout the life of this series, Tess has matured; she still tends to exhibit signs of naïveté and impulsiveness, but I do like her more and more. She's still a little too attached to how things used to be, from relationships to city landmarks, but she's less impulsive and is learning to reach out to friends and colleagues. The network of women private eyes, SnoopSisters (yeah, I hate the name too, Tess) that she relies on here makes sense, and Tess doesn't have to go it alone.
Lippman writes real characters; you don't always like them and you may not always sympathize with them --- they're flawed and they're human. I still hate Whitney, who (phew) barely appears here, and I miss Crow (he's cool). As for the continuing story of Tess's Aunt Kitty and Tyner, and their relationship (the one that Tess is trying very hard to deal with), you'll have to read about that for yourself.