In his introduction to Laura Lippman's new short-story anthology, fellow thriller writer George Pelecanos contrasts Hardly Knew Her with other authors' "tossed-off collections of odds and ends and never-should-have-been short stories." Clearly Pelecanos is just jealous that Lippman is married to Baltimore local god David Simon of The Wire, while Pelecanos only worked for him, but in his praise is the acknowledgment that the stories within (nearly all reprints) face the challenge of surprising fans of Lippman's regular subject, private investigator Tess Monaghan, and enticing readers new to her work. Still, Lippman proves herself competent in brief by playing to the form's strengths instead of trying to duplicate the narrative pull of a full-length mystery.
The postcard-sized stories that comprise the majority of Hardly Knew Her avoid the Two-Minute Mystery trap by driving the action with motives instead of violent acts. The opening story, "The Crack Cocaine Diet," in which two girls go into west Baltimore to buy drugs, establishes the pattern most of them fall into: Women, either young or well-dressed, wind up in perilous situations, sometimes of their own design, and retaliate in gruesome ways. "Femme Fatale"'s heroine is well-dressed but not young, which is why a flattering offer made at a Starbucks draws her into a new line of work. In "One True Love," a madam turned well-dressed suburbanite is recognized by one of her johns at her son's soccer game, and is driven to protect her livelihood when he demands free favors for his silence; the same woman is the subject of the novella "Scratch A Woman," which rounds out the collection.
The common element among these tales is clearest when the crime is witnessed by a third-party observer, as in "Pony Girl," in which a man decides to follow a girl in a sexy Halloween costume: He's able to acknowledge the biases which lead him to assume she'll end the night a victim instead of a perp. "Arm And The Woman" seesaws into B-grade male fantasy, but the elaborate feint of "Dear Penthouse Forum (A First Draft)" begs for re-reading once it's revealed. In the end, Lippman's stories featuring PI Monaghan, with their conventional focus on the facts of the case and the process of investigation, seem the most out of place. The best moments in Hardly Knew Her function as snapshots in which the reader's own lapses in logic are revealed and the question of "whydunit" lingers.