Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The Accidental Detective

Laura Lippman wrote the following essay about her leading character, Tess Monaghan, at the request of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York. "I chose to write a profile of Tess as Laura Lippman might have written a feature story for the local newspaper," the author says.

Tess Monaghan has been called Baltimore's best-known private detective, Baltimore's hungriest private detective and, just once, Baltimore's most eligible private detective. (Her father went behind her back and entered her into Baltimore magazine's annual feature on the city's "hot" singles.) But although her work and its consequences have often been featured in the news, Monaghan, a former reporter, has been surprisingly successful at keeping information about herself out of the public domain, At least, until now. Oh yes, Ms. Monaghan, this reporter knows her way around public documents.

Monaghan was born in St. Agnes Hospital and while official documents disagree on the year, she's undeniably a member of Generation X or Y, a post-boomer born to an unlikely duo who prove the old adage that opposites attract. Patrick Monaghan, described by his daughter as the world's most taciturn Irishman, was the oldest of seven children. He grew up in a crowded South Baltimore rowhouse and, later, the Charles Village area.

Meanwhile, Judith Weinstein was the youngest of five from a well-to-do Northwest Baltimore family. She was just entering college when her father's eponymous drugstore chain entered a messy and devastating bankruptcy. Monaghan and Weinstein met via local politics, during the 1966 governor's race. The couple remained active in politics; Monaghan remembers riding her tricycle around the old Stonewall Democratic Club as a 5-year-old. Her father worked for years as a city liquor inspector, then began running his own club, the Point, which has thrived in an unlikely location on Franklintown Road. Her mother works for the National Security Agency and says she cannot divulge what she does.

"I'm pretty sure she's a secretary," Monaghan says, "but for all I know she's a jet-setting spy who manages to get home by 5:30 every night and put supper on the table."

The family settled in Ten Hills on the city's west side and Monaghan attended public schools, graduating from Western High School's prestigious A-course and then attending Washington College in Chestertown, where she majored in English. By her testimony, she discovered two lifelong influences on the Eastern Shore – rowing and Whitney Talbot. A member of a very old, very rich and very connected Valley family, Talbot has a work ethic as fierce as the one instilled in Monaghan by her middle-class parents, and the two have long reveled in their competitive friendship.

Upon graduation, Monaghan joined theStar as a general assignments reporter, while Talbot – who had transferred to Yale and majored in Japanese – landed a job on the Beacon-Light's editorial pages. But Monaghan's timing turned out to be less than felicitous – the Star folded before she was 26, and the Beacon-Light declined to hire her. Cast adrift, she relied on the kindness of family members to help her make ends meet on her meager freelance salary. She lived in a cheap apartment above her aunt's bookstore in Fells Point and relied on her uncle to throw her assignments for various state agencies. It was in Kitty Monaghan's store, Women and Children First, that she met her current boyfriend, Edward "Crow" Ransome. When she was 29, she fell into PI work and likes to call herself the "accidental detective," a riff on Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist.

"Does anyone plan to become a private detective?" Monaghan asks. "It's not a rhetorical question. I suppose somewhere, there's a little boy or girl dreaming of life as an investigator, but everyone I know seems to have done some other kind of work first. Lawyer, cop. All I know is I did a favor for a friend, botched it royally, and then tried to help his lawyer get him out of the mess I created. When it was over, the lawyer pressed me to work for him as an investigator, then pushed me out of the nest and all but forced me to open my own agency."

That lawyer, Tyner Gray, would end up marrying Tess's Aunt Kitty. Monaghan pretends to be horrified by this development, but seems to have genuine affection for the man who has mentored her since she was in her late twenties.

Her agency, Keys Investigation Inc., is technically co-owned by Edward Keys, a retired Baltimore police detective who seems to spend most of his time in Fenwick Island, Delaware. (Asked to comment for this story, Keys declined repeatedly and would not respond to rumors that he has, in fact, met Monaghan in the flesh only once.) Monaghan appears to be the sole employee on the premises of the one-time dry cleaners that serves as her office, although she jokes that there are two part-time workers "who have agreed to accept their compensation in dog biscuits." Those would be Esskay, a retired racing greyhound named for her love of Baltimore's best-known sausage, and Miata, a docile Doberman with infallible instincts about people. "If she had growled at you, I wouldn't have let you over the threshold," Monaghan says. "I've learned the hard way to trust Miata."

The office is filled with Baltimore-bilia – the old "Time for a Haircut" clock from a Woodlawn barbershop and several Esskay tins. "People give them to me," Monaghan says. "I'm not prone to collecting things."

Has anyone ever commented on the irony that Monaghan, who sits beneath that "Time for a Haircut" clock, once had a most untimely haircut, in which a serial killer sliced off her signature braid? Monaghan shot the man in self-defense, but not before he killed a former transportation cop with whom she was working.

"I don't talk about that," she says. "I understand you have to ask about it. I was a reporter, and I'd have asked about it, too. But it's something I never discuss."

Okay, so life and death have been shot down as topics. What would she prefer to talk about?

"Do you think the Orioles are ever going to get it together? One World Series in my lifetime. It's so depressing."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Laura Lippman