‘Lady In The Lake’

Another Illuminating Murder Mystery From Laura Lippman

Maddie Schwartz and Cleo Sherwood live dramatically different lives.

Maddie is a married Jewish mother to a teen-age son and a housewife in 1960s Baltimore, with a freezer full of her famous dinner rolls and “effortless–effortless-seeming–organization.”

Cleo is a black single mother of two young boys, the mistress of a Baltimore dry-cleaner owner, and political wannabe. And also dead. She’s the “Lady in the Lake” at the center of Laura Lippman’s new crime novel, which investigates both Cleo’s fate and the shifting social mores of the ‘60s.

As the book opens, Maddie yearns for more. She leaves her safe suburban existence and strikes out on her own, securing an apartment and a lover in quick order. When a young Jewish girl from her community disappears and Maddie finds the body during a volunteer search of a city park two days later, she’s hooked on finding out what happened. Eventually, she’s equally intrigued by Cleo’s disappearance months earlier, one ignored by the mainstream press.

“March came in like a lion, they still hadn’t found me, and the daily newspapers still hadn’t written a word about me,” Cleo says in beyond-the-grave narration that regularly punctuates the novel. “Tessie Fine – she was missed right away. I know, I know: she was only eleven. And white. Still, it did not escape my attention that her disappearance was noted almost immediately.”

By the time Cleo’s story surfaces outside the black community, Maddie has wheedled her way into an entry-level position at the Star newspaper. Her tenure there is part of how Lippman unpacks what it meant to be a woman in a man’s world circa 1966. Maddie arrives at the Star’s offices with a scoop, a letter from the chief suspect in Tessie Fine’s murder, and tries to convince them to hire her.

“She had offended him,” Maddie realizes of the columnist she blithely lobbies for a job offer. “And Maddie, whose instincts for what men need were unerring, knew immediately how to make it right.”

Lippman certainly knows newsrooms. She spent 20 years as a reporter, including more than a decade at the Baltimore Sun, before turning to crime fiction. She started with her Tess Monaghan series, featuring a reporter-turned-P.I. who earned her place among the Kinsey Millhones of the genre for her fierce independence. Yet Lippman is also a keen observer of human nature, and over time, her bestselling standalones have evolved to explore deeper issues along with the mysteries at hand.

Laura Lippman author photo by Lesley Unruh.

So as we see Maddie shift from sweet-talking her editor to demanding her rightful place on the news staff and eschew her Maisel-style dresses for swinging Marimekko prints, we also see how her transformation is possible in large part because she’s white. Cleo too had designs on a better life, but her opportunities to change were far less.

In Lady in the Lake, Lippman frequently alternates between Maddie’s experience of a particular conversation or event and others’: “You didn’t care about my life, only my death,” Cleo imagines hissing at Maddie, after she shows up on Cleo’s parents’ doorstep asking questions. “Experienced reporters palaver, toy with you, waste your time. This one has no idea what she’s doing, but at least that means I won’t be here long,” thinks Donald, the legislative staffer Maddie questions for details on Cleo’s sugar daddy.

It’s a potent device that prods the reader to question assumptions, and it’s Lippman’s greatest gift to her readers. She’s an adept storyteller, with twists and turns in the murder mystery that frames Lady in the Lake. But her insistence on illuminating multiple characters’ views reminds us that truth often depends on who’s telling it.

(William Morrow/Harper Collins, July 23, 2019)

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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