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Lady in the Lake


Lady in the Lake

The Laura Lippman we have seen these past couple of years is a far different writer from when she debuted in 1997. Last year’s SUNBURN saw her delve straight into classic crime noir. Her latest novel displays a completely unique style of mystery/thriller writing that I have never experienced before.

LADY IN THE LAKE is categorized as a historical mystery mainly due to the fact that it is set in the mid-1960s, which places it directly in some of the toughest years for racial tension in our country’s history. The book is narrated from the viewpoints of several different characters, and Lippman spreads out the storytelling among a sea of supporting and tertiary players. There are some chapters in which a character or real-life figure is merely referred to; then we find that person narrating the next chapter. Brilliant stuff!

We open with the thoughts of Cleo Sherwood, a fun-loving young black woman who was found dead in the fountain portion of a nearby lake. Cleo lets us know up front that a woman is only as good as the man by her side, which might be an inference to those responsible for her untimely death. Death changed her --- alive she was Cleo Sherwood, but dead she would forever be the “Lady in the Lake.”

"There are some chapters in which a character or real-life figure is merely referred to; then we find that person narrating the next chapter. Brilliant stuff!"

Cleo's death is all but unrecognized, except for the presence of one woman who decides to make it the central point of her new career as a journalist. Choosing to give Cleo her voice back is young Madeline "Maddie" Schwartz. Maddie herself is sort of a minority as the only woman writing for a daily paper in addition to being of Jewish heritage. Her marriage to Milton is over, and the eventual divorce papers are just a technicality. Now, the mother and housewife has decided she must do something with her life --- she has to matter.

Maddie initially gets her reporting printed under the byline of another journalist, Bob Bauer.  Meanwhile, she takes advantage of her status as a reporter for The Star as she conducts her own investigation into Cleo’s life. This ends up being a trail that sends her into areas and neighborhoods in which she typically would not be welcome and into the presence of some dangerous figures with whom she would never have reason to be in contact. Maddie recognizes that even good girls make mistakes when they're in love, but they don't deserve to die for them. Maddie got out alive; Cleo didn't.

LADY IN THE LAKE is as much a story about a murder case as it is a tale of the reawakening of a young lady who is full of life and not ready to follow the paint-by-numbers path that women are supposed to take in this era. Maddie not only has moved on from her husband, she is truly defying public norms by secretly dating a black police officer. At 37, she has just decided to live. It is ironic that, to help her do this, she has to speak for someone who is dead and forever silent.

This is a great mystery story filled with elements of noir and far too many characters/potential suspects to keep track of. I alluded earlier to the fact that Lippman uses many different narrators here and the unique way she accomplishes it. As a lifelong baseball fanatic, I was particularly thrilled to read a chapter narrated by a then-rookie outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles: the great Paul Blair. I'm sure most readers will not catch this reference, and I thank Lippman for throwing it in.

It is obvious to me that Lippman has written LADY IN THE LAKE primarily as a tribute to her two great loves: journalism and the city of Baltimore. Even though Baltimore has served as the background for the majority of her novels, never before has she produced a work that heralded so many different voices from a myriad of characters based in Charm City. I still miss her Tess Monaghan series, but I believe that Maddie Schwartz could have been someone who inspired and drove Tess in her own career as a journalist and amateur sleuth, not to mention a successful and determined single woman.

Reviewed by Ray Palen on July 26, 2019

Lady in the Lake
by Laura Lippman