“Lady in the Lake” (William Morrow), by Laura Lippman
Everyone wants to feel that he or she has an impact on the world or to have just one other person believe — no, know — that what he or she does is important, which is featured heavily in Laura Lippman’s new superb stand-alone novel, “Lady in the Lake.”
Elegantly written, the novel moves with an eye to how people adapt to changes in culture, or maybe how an evolving culture causes shifts in people. “Lady in the Lake” works well on several levels — as a look at the mid-1960s and a view of racism, sexism and the intersection of ennui and ambition. It is also a paean to newspapers and the struggle of women reporters during that time.
Lippman has wisely chosen an unconventional mystery with “Lady in the Lake,” focusing on the internal rage that drives many of its characters.
That internal rage certainly propels Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz, a 37-year-old Jewish housewife who leaves her well-to-do husband, Milton, and the couple’s perfectly decorated Baltimore home. At one time, Maddie had goals that reached beyond marriage, mothering their only child, Seth and keeping a kosher home. But this is Baltimore during the 1960s and Maddie is forced to see how difficult the world can be. She moves into an apartment in a sketchy neighborhood and begins an affair with a black cop. But she hadn’t planned this move carefully. She left behind most of her valuable possessions and relies on Milton for money.
Eventually, she lands a low-level newspaper job but isn’t taken seriously, even when she tries to investigate the murder of Cleo Sherwood, a young black woman whose body was found in the Druid Hill Park fountain. Her editors don’t see the importance of the death of a black woman, whom Maddie calls the “lady in the lake.” Nevertheless, Maddie persists.
While “Lady in the Lake” revolves around Maddie, Lippman also richly delves into the personas of those in Maddie’s orbit — people she may never have thought about while living in that comfortable home. As part of her maturation, Maddie finds a link to each person and a deeper connection to Cleo. Maddie isn’t always the most likable of characters, but Lippman makes readers care deeply about her.
The author shows each character in the context of the era’s culture that is on the cusp of change. Gender and racial roles are in flux, but the changes aren’t coming quickly enough.
Lippman again proves she’s a sharp observer of people, with an affinity for shaping complicated people in a refined plot.