Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman, review: A fascinating, unforgiving dive into Sixties Baltimore

This vivid historical crime novel follows Maddie whose post-divorce life finds her trying to solve a murder

Clémence Michallon
Saturday 27 July 2019 10:57

In 2018, Laura Lippman released Sunburn, a tantalising thriller hailed as a “page-turning pleasure”, “handled with masterly flair”, and “lethally seductive”. Her new release, Lady in the Lake, is deserving of the same praise, and more. This vivid historical novel inspired by two real deaths (one solved, one unsolved) confirms Lippman’s status as one of the most skilled and prolific authors of American crime fiction – and makes for a fascinating, unforgiving dive into Sixties Baltimore.

The story told in Lady in the Lake began, in many ways, five decades before the book’s release, in 1969. In June of that year, the body of Shirley Lee Wigeon Parker, a black 35-year-old divorcee, was found in a fountain in one of the city’s parks. About three months later, in September, Esther Lebowitz, an 11-year-old Jewish girl, was beaten to death inside a fish store, in a gruesome, traumatising killing that profoundly impacted Baltimore’s Jewish community.

Those two stories collide in Lady in the Lake when Maddie Schwartz, a freshly divorced, 37-year-old former housewife, encounters the body of a recently murdered schoolgirl called Tessie Fine (whose story mirrors Esther Lebowitz’s). Maddie, who needs a job and, more importantly, a new identity besides being her husband’s former wife, turns the incident first into a story, then lands herself a bottom-of-the-ladder job at the fictional (but delightfully realistic) Baltimore Star. There, she becomes obsessed with the disappearance and drowning of Cleo Sherwood – the novel’s version of Shirley Lee Wigeon Parker and the novel’s titular Lady in the Lake. What follows is the tale of Maddie’s dogged determination to find out what happened to Cleo in the days before her death, and her equally staunch desire to carve herself a spot at the newspaper.

While Maddie’s metamorphosis from a skilled–but–bored housewife to a rookie reporter is the beating heart of Lady in the Lake, Lippman invites us, time and time again, to see Maddie’s journey as one element of a larger picture – one moving part in Baltimore’s complex dynamics. She does so, mainly, by bringing to life a large cast of voices, including Cleo’s, who’s speaking from beyond the grave – and isn’t particularly pleased by Maddie’s efforts to uncover the truth behind her disappearance. We hear from Tessie Fine’s presumed murderer, from Tessie herself (in her last moments), from an obliviously racist cop, a rising baseball star, and an experienced female reporter used to working on her copy in the women’s bathroom.

Lippman, a Baltimore resident and former Baltimore Sun reporter, takes her time to paint a full picture of her city, and her evident pleasure in doing so is infectious. It’s not always a comfortable picture, mind you – set a full decade after the end of racial segregation in the United States, Lippman’s novel depicts the remaining blatant racism of the Sixties. A black police officer isn’t allowed to use a patrol car. The disappearance of Sherwood, a woman of colour, is ignored by most newspapers. One of the most moving scenes in the book comes when Maddie, having begun a secret liaison with the aforementioned black police officer, goes with him to a baseball game and must pretend not to know him. (Interracial marriage didn’t become legal in the United States until 1967, and that particular scene is set in July 1966.) “She almost touched Ferdie just then, but realised in time that she could not,” Lippman writes of Maddie and her lover. “She had a ticket, he had a ticket. It was happenstance that they were seated together. They chatted as strangers in a stadium might, polite and distant.”

LGBT+ rights, too, are touched upon – namely through the mention of “Baltimore bachelors”, closeted gay men whose sexuality is doomed to remain a secret. A particular plot point involving one of those “Baltimore bachelors” might give some readers pause, but saying more here would give too much away.

Lady in the Lake, of course, is a great newspaper novel. What else could anyone expect from Lippman, a second-generation reporter whose father also worked at the Baltimore Sun in the mid-Sixties – as well as her husband, David Simon, the creator of The Wire – and whose colleagues she thanks in her acknowledgements? It’s impossible not to revel in her depiction of the Star’s messy newsroom, of its ruthless office politics, and of its sometimes disillusioned veterans. Lippman writes at times with the accuracy of a reporter, though she warns that her version of the two killings at the centre of her story isn’t entirely factual. The 1966 Maryland gubernatorial race, which unfolds in the story’s background, is “represented accurately, down to the weather on the day after the primary”.

Throughout the novel, Maddie evolves from a woman whose main surviving skill is her bewildering ability to get men to like her – a woman who at one point tells herself: “My first mistake was trying to get a woman to help me. I do better with men. I always do better with men.” – to a woman who realises she’s going to have to fight her battles by herself. “The men made the rules, broke the rules, and tossed the girls away,” she thinks once her investigation into Cleo’s death has reached a frustrating cul-de-sac. At the beginning of the novel, Maddie has no idea what her post-divorce life will bring. It’s mesmerising to watch as she gets to decide what to do with it.

‘Lady in the Lake’ is published on 23 July by William Morrow in the US ($26.99) and on 25 July by Faber & Faber in the UK (£12.99)

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