Laura Lippman's Baltimore: Loving a Flawed Place From the Antique Man's giant ball of string in Fells Point, to the crab cake lunch downtown, Laura Lippman loves Baltimore. Despite the city's crime and other problems, the crime novelist says its flaws are what make it an interesting place.
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Laura Lippman's Baltimore: Loving a Flawed Place

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Laura Lippman's Baltimore: Loving a Flawed Place

Laura Lippman's Baltimore: Loving a Flawed Place

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"In a Strange City," "By A Spider's Thread," "Every Secret Thing" - great titles. And they're just three of 12 books by crime novelist Laura Lippman. The latest is "What the Dead Know."

As we continue this week's series, Crime in the City, NPR's Noah Adams takes us to the streets of Baltimore.

NOAH ADAMS: Laura Lippman writes mostly about a private investigator, Tess Monaghan. Tess Monaghan is a made-up name, and what she does is a matter of fiction. But Baltimore, when Lippman puts Baltimore on the page, she's got to get it right. For example, the city is well known for its narrow, brick row houses. Lippman believes row house to be one word, but copy editors in New York sometimes insist on two.

Ms. LAURA LIPPMAN (Crime Novelist): It makes no sense to me. And my husband once said, if anything, not only should row house be one word, but it should be attached to the words on either side of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LIPPMAN: So proper style is that it's two words, and I've had to basically say you've got to stop this. In Baltimore, row house is one word. I'll be a laughingstock if you make row house into two words.

ADAMS: In a crime novel, we would learn that Laura Lippman has reddish blonde hair, wears a slip of a blue dress on this rainy August day, drives a scratched-up stick shift VW.

ADAMS: Are we in Fell's Point now?

Ms. LIPPMAN: We're now in Fell's Point. And the Antique Man is in the next block. They've moved a couple of times.

ADAMS: Lippman's steady readers know about Fell's Point. Private Investigator Monaghan used to live here, in a row house, above her aunt's bookstore.

And we're going to the Antique Man to see?

Ms. LIPPMAN: We're going to see the giant ball of string.


Mr. BOB GERBER (The Antique Man): Yup.

Ms. LIPPMAN: Hi. I'm Laura.

Mr. GERBER: Yeah, there's the Haussner's ball of string.

ADAMS: This is Bob Gerber. He's called the Antique Man. And for close to $9,000, he bought this ball of string, which is about as tall as we are.

Mr. GERBER: I think it's 800-and-some pounds. It'll stretch from here to Delaware.

ADAMS: The ball of string comes from Haussner's Restaurant - German food, strawberry pie. Laura Lippman went there as a kid with her folks. They'd stand in line for hours. The ball is thousands of pieces of twine. The twine was used for napkin ties.

Mr. GERBER: And it's kind of neat. When you went to Haussner's, it was in the corner, then they would let you put your child on the ball and have a picture taken.

ADAMS: Bob Gerber might even give away the ball of string someday, but it's got to stay in Baltimore, he says. He's seen too much of the city disappear, and he's also seen too much change.

I notice you wear a pistol.

Mr. GERBER: Yes. You know, it's bad out there. This is an up-and-coming neighborhood. It's a great neighborhood, but it's still bad. Baltimore city is in bad shape. Myself, I've had problems in this store. You know, I have my doors open. You see my front door. I have guys run in, walk in, you know, they're just looking for something easy to catch. And, you know, I'm too old to fight them, so I figure if I've got a gun, at least I've got a fighting chance.

ADAMS: On the way to a Baltimore lunch, a discussion of the Baltimore accent, which Laura Lippman doesn't have, nor does her fictional private investigator. It's a way of talking that comes from deep inside neighborhoods.

Ms. LIPPMAN: And the thing that made me know that the Antique Man, Robert, had a classic one is when he said nine - the nine. And I think he was talking about when Haussner's closed. And he said, I mean, that was back in '99. That's Baltimore.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ADAMS: The old Lexington market downtown. The Baltimore markets are favorite Tess Monaghan meeting places.

Ms. LIPPMAN: One really key difference between Tess and me is that she's allergic to shellfish. I'm not.

ADAMS: And that means Lippman goes for crab cakes at Faidleys Seafood, where you eat standing up.

Ms. LIPPMAN: The crab cake itself is so rich. It's almost creamy. And it's amazing.

I'm getting an all-lump platter, and I'd like to get it with french fries and coleslaw.

Unidentified Woman: Fries and slaw and a lump platter for here.

Ms. LIPPMAN: If you drink, you should have a beer with it. That's how I plan to do it.

ADAMS: The final excursion of the day is along an interstate highway in Baltimore that comes to a sudden end. In a book, Tess Monaghan calls this the ghost road. I-70, which runs almost all the way across the country, was supposed to go in through Baltimore to the waterfront. Maryland senior Senator Barbara Mikulski was back then a social worker, and she helped lead the fight to stop the 16-lane road.

Ms. LIPPMAN: But the highway ends right there at Lincoln Park, which is this incredibly lush, verdant enormous park here in West Baltimore, entirely within the city limits, that has a sad reputation for being known as the place that people used to like to dump dead bodies.

ADAMS: Laura Lippman, a former newspaper reporter, now a crime writer, pays attention to the dead-body stories. On this day, she would have taken note of the pistol the Antique Man had on his belt. One afternoon each week, she volunteers at a soup kitchen. A young girl she got to know there was fatally stabbed. People walk in who've been pistol-whipped for their paychecks. This is the Baltimore she decided to write about, and not the teased hairdos and diners and the long-gone Baltimore Colts.

Ms. LIPPMAN: I think Baltimore suffers from nostalgia, and it sometimes keeps us from being honest in talking about what really happened here. A place doesn't have to be perfect to be beloved. And I love this city, and I love it better for seeing its flaws. Anyone can love a perfect place. Loving Baltimore takes some resilience.

ADAMS: Laura Lippman's next Tess Monaghan book is due out in March. It's titled, "Another Thing to Fall."

Noah Adams, NPR News.

YDSTIE: And you can read excerpts from some of Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan novels and hear more stories in our series from crime writers in Venice and Bangkok at

Tomorrow, Crime in the City concludes when we hit the streets and the freeways of Los Angeles with author Michael Connelly.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

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