By a Spider's Thread by Laura Lippman

By a Spider’s Thread is the latest Tess Monaghan mystery by Laura Lippman. Not having read the previous works in this series I can’t tell you how it stacks up. But I can tell you that Spider’s Thread is an entertaining and even thought provoking story. What makes it somewhat unique is how Lippman weaves an exploration of what it means to be an Orthodox Jew into a P.I. mystery. This allows her to take on some meatier issues than what one might find in a typical mystery.

The story centers around the family of Mark Rubin; a wealthy furrier and Orthodox Jew whose wife and kids have disappeared. Without any sign of foul play the police are unwilling to get involved so Rubin is in need of the services of a private investigator. This is where Tess Monaghan enters the picture. Tess has an Irish name but a Jewish side of the family as well (her full name is Theresa Esther Weinstein Monaghan). Her uncle recommended that Rubin hire Tess to get to the bottom of his wife and kid’s disappearance. Needing a solid source of income, Tess agrees to take the case despite her misgivings about the lack of clues and the feeling Rubin wasn’t telling her everything.

Since the unfolding of the mystery is at least half the fun of reading a book like this, I won’t spoil any of the details. But what makes the story enjoyable is the way Lippman creates believable characters, slowly reveals the mystery at the heart of the story, and illuminates the interaction between the largely secular worldview of Monaghan and the religiously infused world of Rubin.

The characters in the book give it a depth that is often lacking in more straight forward mysteries. Lippman gives the reader a wide range of characters from the lead roles played by Monaghan, Rubin and his “missing” family to the more secondary characters. A good example, is Rubin’s son Issac. Lippman paints a insightful portrait of an intelligent young boy caught up in events beyond his control who acts courageously out of love for his dad and wants nothing more than to see his family whole again.

It is also through Issac that we begin to see another side of Rubin. At first Rubin seems stubborn and cold; unwilling to work with Tess due to his vanity and odd beliefs. But as the story unfolds, Tess realizes that he is actually an intelligent and even tender man and father dealing with a very difficult situation. She realizes that he loves his family deeply and seeks the best for them. Unfortunately, as is often the case in these type of stories, emotions and actions from the past bubble up to cause problems in the here and now. As she gets to know Rubin better his beliefs seem less odd and more unerstandable (they are still different and often unique but not inexpliably so).

Tess is wrestling with her own issues. Her interaction with Rubin causes her to think about her own family and the role of faith and culture in her life. In addition, she is reflecting on her relationship with her erstwhile boyfriend who is supposedly out of town dealing with his mother’s illness. Like she does with many of the other crucial plot lines, Lippman plays out the clues slowly so that the whole picture comes together gradually; the reader isn’t given advance notice of all the facts (what kind of mystery would that be?) but instead is forced to watch the plot unfold much like the characters in the story.

All of the above combines to make By a Spider’s Thread an enjoyable and interesting read. The plot isn’t particularly complex or byzantine but there are enough twists to keep the reader focused and alert. The characters, however, have enough depth and meaning that Lippman doesn’t need to force the pace. Even so she manages to throw in a suspenseful denouement before the more reflective ending. If I had one complaint it might be that Lippman seems to try too hard to connect Monaghan to the modern world. I found the references to cell phone etiquette and telemarketing avoidance, the email group the Snoop Sisters, and various other cultural commentary a little forced at times. It was as if she need to set the story very obviously in the early 21st century. Perhaps, she felt like these peculiarities and unique communication tools of the time period would make the setting more real but I found them off-putting at times; a little too cute.

That very minor caveat aside, I enjoyed Tess as a character and hope to have the chance to dip into her past by reading the previous novels in this series. But whether you have read the previous books or not, if you like a good P.I. story with an interesting setting and unique characters you should enjoy By a Spider’s Thread.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).