It has been a couple years since I have read Laura Lippman, author of The Last Place, The Sugar House, Baltimore Blues, Charm City, Butchers Hill, In Big Trouble, and more. Her mystery/crime fiction series features Tess Monaghan, a former Baltimore cop turned private investigator. By a Spider’s Thread is the most complex one so far, causing Tess to examine both her Irish and Jewish sides of the family. I’m glad I chose it.
Tess’ uncle, Donald Weinstein, refers a desperate acquaintance, a wealthy Orthodox Jew, to her. Mark Rubin, a furrier, comes to Tess asking for her help in finding his missing wife and three children. Although the police have determined that Natalie Rubin took the three young children and left of her own accord, her husband refuses to believe such irrational behavior. After all, he has provided his pretty, young wife with stylish clothes, a grand home, and expensive jewelry, asking only that she devote her time to their religion, the house cleaning, kosher cooking, and the children. However, he tells Tess very little else about their “wonderful” marriage.
The deeper Tess delves into the investigation the more she uncovers, including several pertinent items that Mark failed to mention- like Natalie is from Russia and her father is in prison, the same prison where Rubin goes to conduct Jewish meetings with inmates. This lack of complete cooperation by her client frustrates and irritates Tess, but she sticks with the case for the sake of the children: nine-year-old Isaac and four-year-old twins, Penina and Efraim. With the Internet now a fact of life, Tess’ investigation is aided by a network of investigators from whom she learns that Natalie is motel-hopping in the midwest with the children and a man. They are in an old car and obtaining money through emergency social services checks.
Zeke, a charming and handsome felon, planned Natalie’s 10-year marriage to the much older Mark in order to save her for himself, upon his release. What he had not planned on were the children, whom Natalie refuses to leave behind, because she had told him she could not have children. During their seemingly aimless trek, Zeke often puts Isaac in the trunk as punishment for trying to contact his father and alerting security guards to his plight. Isaac is clever and rational, like his father, and eventually does make a brief phone call, as well as waving to one of Tess’ networkers.
When Tess updates Rubin about his family’s whereabouts, she also confronts him with the facts of his wife’s betrayal. Rubin is stunned, but his faith and devotion to his family remains intact through sheer obstinance. His life has been turned upside down, partially through his own actions, but he refuses to believe that he will not have his family back soon.
A subplot, running through By a Spider’s Thread, is the upcoming wedding of Tess’ aunt, owner of a funky bookstore, and Tess’ having to wear a dress. The groom is Tess’ wheelchair-bound friend, and sometimes employer, to whom she introduced her aunt a couple books earlier.
The ending is quite satisfactory, but I refuse to spoil it for you.