The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman: A review

I seem to be stuck in the '60s this summer. Most of the books that I've picked to read over the past several weeks have been set in that turbulent and thrilling decade. A coincidence of choice or a result of the fact that that era seems to be particularly popular territory for today's writers? A bit of both, I guess. 

At any rate, Laura Lippman's new book is set primarily in 1966 Baltimore, a time when the Baltimore Orioles were good and racial tensions were high. I had never read Lippman before (My bad!) and didn't know what to expect from her. What I got was a tightly plotted mystery about the deaths of a young girl and a young woman which also explored the devaluation of women by the society of the period and the great chasm that existed between what women aspired to for their lives and what was actually expected of them and what they were allowed to achieve.

I read somewhere that this book was inspired by Herman Wouk's Marjorie Morningstar which Lippman reveres and rereads each year. But she has taken the "Marjorie" character, in her book Madeline "Maddie" Schwartz, as she was at the end of Wouk's book and she has given her a second chance to be what she had once dreamed of being.

And so we meet Maddie at 37, a discontented housewife and mother who had accepted the role that her Jewish culture had expected of her for eighteen years. She had married and produced a son, now 16, and settled into the upper-middle-class with her successful husband. An unexpected meeting with a man from her past, now a television newscaster, reminds Maddie of her one-time dreams of being a writer. That along with her dissatisfaction with her life crystallizes her plan of action. She leaves her husband and gets an apartment downtown. She had expected her son to go with her, but he chooses to stay with his father. Maddie is alone and free!

Around that time, a teenage girl from the local synagogue goes missing. Maddie and a new acquaintance from the synagogue join the search party and they happen upon the girl's murdered body. Later, a columnist from The Star newspaper learns Maddie's name and contacts her for her story. This encounter inspires Maddie to seek a job with the newspaper and, with the help of the columnist, she gets it. It's a very low-level job, but Maddie has big aspirations.

She is assigned to help the columnist who writes the Helpline, answering questions from readers. He confides to Maddie, "I have the stupidest column in the paper, but it's also the most popular."

Maddie screens a complaint about the lights being out in the fountain at the center of Druid Hill Park and she passes it along to the Department of Public Works. When they investigate, they find the decomposing body of a woman that had been dumped in the fountain months before and had shorted out the wiring. In the newspaper stories, she becomes "The Lady in the Lake".  

The body is identified as that of Eunetta "Cleo" Sherwood, a young Negro (in the terminology of the day) barkeeper at a local club. She had been missing since New Year's Day and her mother had been harassing the local police, trying to get them to investigate, but they did not seem to take the disappearance seriously. Now perhaps they will.

Maddie thus has a connection, however ephemeral, to two murders and she becomes somewhat obsessed with solving them and with writing about them for her paper. She sees them as the big scoops that will provide her with the leverage she needs to be accepted as a reporter. As she pursues her investigations, we hear from various actors in the drama. Lippman employs the popular multi-voice narrative, letting us into the minds of many of the people Maddie comes in contact with and letting us hear their thoughts. We even hear from the presumed dead woman Cleo Sherwood who tells her own story. It is an effective way of presenting a complicated narrative. 

Meantime, in her personal life, Maddie has taken a lover, a black policeman who falls in love with her. Interracial marriage is still illegal in Maryland at the time, so that is off the table, but Maddie is certain that she does not want to marry again. She prefers to devote her energy to her career. And she does ultimately get the career she wants.

I was hooked on Maddie's and Cleo's tale from the beginning and my interest never flagged. The pace of the narrative was such that it was hard to put the book down, and there were bits of humor that brought smiles along the way. I think my favorite line was when Maddie was talking with the bartender at the club where Cleo worked. She asks him which is his favorite Baltimore newspaper and he tells her The Beacon. "It's the thickest," he says, "and I've got a parakeet."

And then there's that twist at the end. I never saw it coming.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Comments

  1. I was wowed by her last novel, Sunburn, and am determined to read more. Isn't she great?

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    Replies
    1. Based on the evidence of this one book, I would have to agree.

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