[That's the first line of the book. Yep, this'll end well...]
~~Moved from GR~~
The Last Place
by Laura Lippman
There's nothing more satisfying than a clichéd plot that is done well enough to be elevated to something more significant.
In the detective noir genre, there's nothing more chlichéd than a serial killer, and The Last Place is Lippman's obligatory serial killer book. It starts out with a scene that, with another author, might be treated as a joke. Lippman's private investigator protagonist, Tess Monaghan, at her friend Whitney's instigation, tricks a wannabe pedophile into taking his own date rape drugs and then denudes him of his hair with a few well-placed squirts of Nair. But the reason why I respect Lippman as a writer is that in her world, actions have consequences. Although Tess (and the narrator) initially present these actions as humorous, Tess quickly ends up with felony charges and court-mandated anger management therapy. Whitney, characteristically not particularly apologetic for her part in the escapade, tries to make amends by presenting Tess with what should be an easy case to solve. Of course, Whitney's case turns out to be more than it seems, and Tess is pulled into a game in which she is both the hunter and the prey for a serial killer.
So why, then, is this the first Laura Lippman book I've ever given a 5 to? The only thing more chlichéd than a serial killer is a serial killer who goes after a bevy of beautiful women, starts to fixate on the detective, and provides snippets of chapters from his own viewpoint. While The Last Place is indeed all of those things, it is yet something more. It is a book about symmetry and consequences. It retraces Tess's steps and her entrance into her new profession and manages to compare Tess's own state of mind to the psyche of a serial killer. For once, the serial killer is not an above-average genius and Lippman does not approach him with awe or fascination. Instead, she tries to examine how perhaps neutral or even good emotions can be twisted and taken too far, and draws parallels to Tess's own actions in the process. At the same time, this isn't an adventure book in which the oh-so-brilliant detective is always multiple steps ahead of his adversary. Tess is repeatedly played by the killer, and her path to discovering him depends on chance and the help of others and her own dogged determination just as much as any mental acuity. Lippman's books usually unabashedly confront various feminist themes, and this book is no exception, as it explores the Pygmalion-and-Galatea attitude that can both create and destroy relationships and people. What I think I loved most was the symmetry, as it takes us back to Tess's first adventure (Baltimore Blues) and both answers and reopens some of the questions there.
Tess is a dynamic and startlingly imperfect character, and in my first interactions with her, I was disgusted by her egocentrism and sense of entitlement. The narration, although in third person, presents the world from Tess's viewpoint, and I had trouble sympathizing with a character so self-righteous or an author who seemingly approved so readily of her character's thoughtless and selfish actions. I underestimated Lippman. In each subsequent book, Tess has grown a little, and been forced to look back on her previous actions. That is most true in this book, in which Tess is forced to try to understand herself as well as the man who is hunting her.
Altogether, despite its rather standard plot, The Last Place not only is an interesting read, but turns the previous books in the series into something more.