Uncommon Mystery - The Girl in the Green Raincoat

Apr 29, 2011

Murray, KY – Now that the sun's come back and summer break is just over the horizon for Murray State students, maybe vacation is on your mind Why not get started on your summer reading list? Commentator and mystery novel enthusiast Michael Cohen shares a quick uncommon mystery by award-winning writer Laura Lippman, titled The Girl in the Green Raincoat, about Baltimore P.I. Tess Monaghan and a young woman in a green raincoat who walks her dog at the same time every day until things go terribly wrong.

Many mysteries have made use of the "armchair detective," the investigator who solves a crime without leaving his house, merely by deducing the answer from facts brought to him by newspapers or informants. Edgar Allan Poe invented the armchair detective. His Auguste Dupin solves "The Mystery of Marie Roget" by reading newspaper accounts of a young woman's murder. Other sleuths solve crimes while they are involuntarily immobilized by injury or illness. A broken leg keeps the protagonist of Hitchcock's Rear Window -based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich from investigating the murder he sees taking place through a nearby apartment window. In Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, a bedridden detective inspector solves England's greatest historical crime, the murder of the princes in the Tower.

Laura Lippman refers to Rear Window and to The Daughter of Time in the opening pages of The Girl in the Green Raincoat, her eleventh book about her reporter turned private investigator, Tess Monaghan. Tess is about to give birth to her first child and because of preeclampsia has been ordered to stay in bed. She chafes at this restriction, but from her new sun porch she can at least watch people walking their dogs in the park. One woman interests her because she and her dog wear outfits of the same celery green. Tess watches the girl in the green raincoat and her dog every afternoon for a week; then one day the dog shows up, running, trailing its green leash, but the woman does not reappear.

Tess sets her staff to the task of finding the dog's owner. They find the dog first and then the man who claims that it is his wife's dog, that he doesn't want the dog, and that his wife is out of town on business. A little digging shows that this man's two previous wives and a girl friend all died under mysterious circumstances. When she makes a couple of blunders that let those she is checking on know she is curious about them, things get dangerous for Tess, who is already in a vulnerable position.

Despite the novella-like brevity of The Girl in the Green Raincoat, we learn more about those around Tess in this than in some of the longer books. The reason is that the book was first serialized in The New York Times Magazine in 2008 before book publication in 2011, and Lippman has tried to give some self-sufficiency to each installment by having someone tell a story about themselves to Tess in the course of the plot.

Tess's associates include the inimitable Mrs. Blossom, who gives an extraordinary, tautological reason for the serenity of her marriage to Mr. Blossom: "I figured out that being happy made me happier than being unhappy ever did." Also assisting Tess's investigations is her friend since college, Whitney Talbot. We learn in one chapter about Whitney and Tess's longstanding rivalry, and in another Tess learns from her parents that they were not the political activists she has always assumed they were.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat is a quick and entertaining read. I think you'll like it.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat by Laura Lippman was first serialized by The New York Times Magazine in 2008 and was published in book form in 2011. Michael Cohen is Professor Emeritus at Murray State University.