I wanted to read Laura Lippman’s Lady In the Lake after I heard an NPR interview with the author. Lippman was knowledgeable and personable about her city’s fractured history, the state of American politics and journalism, its ills and its profound necessity for examining the state of the nation and ensuring free, open democracy. Certainly, her standalone novel contains threads of these ideas. It is, however, unlike Lippman’s expansive personality and openness, a cramped book. The premise held promise: a recently separated late-thirties beauty, Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz (née Morgenstern) has left marriage and middle-class comfort behind to pursue a reporter’s beat. In 1966, there was a ceiling still so thick for women that not even Maddie’s sledgehammer beauty and persistence can break it. Living in one of Baltimore’s seedier neighbourhoods, Maddie pursues an affair with a black policeman, whose nightly visits, an inter-racial “romance” still illicit and dangerous to both, are vigorous and all-consuming. Maddie revels in her freedom for sex and solitude. There’s a mild regret at leaving her son Seth with his father. Seth proves a snivelling, whiny character and I never warmed to him. If at first Maddie’s pursuit of a journalistic career seems random and half-hearted, once she gets a clerical job at a local paper, she begins a relentless pursuit to find the killer of the “lady in the lake”, Cleo Sherwood, make her mark, and get a beat of her own.
Lippman’s novel is very much about race and ethnicity: Maddie is Jewish and has, until she left her charmless husband, lived narrowly in a close-knit, rigidly-maintained community. When she breaks out of it, we see the spectre of the cataclysmic changes brought about, especially for women, in 1960s America, no matter how conventional and closed things still appear. Maddie is not a likable character, but she is compelling and beautifully a-stereotypical of how a women should behave, how a heroine should behave. She should be motivated by ethics, integrity, a dedication to truth and justice, no? What I loved about Maddie was how she was singlemindedly dedicated to Maddie and a stubborn commitment to NOT living her life as a housewife and mother. Maddie wasn’t sure what she was going to do, or how she would accomplish it, but she knocks people out of her path with amoral and self-interested aplomb. I kind of loved her for it. She wasn’t even all that bright and the reader could see her mistakes chapters away. It is to Lippman’s credit for creating Maddie as she did and still surprising me with a twisty, though a tad pat, resolution to the lake-bound lady’s murder.
Other than the complex, compelling Maddie, Lippman tells the story of the lady in the lake with multiple narrative voices, including the lady herself. Yes, Cleo Sherwood’s ghost speaks to Maddie’s at-times foolish pursuit, as do sundry others: the cop who loves her, a murderer who’s responsible for the death of a child (again, a case where Maddie behaves like a bull in a china shop in pursuit of her place in the journalistic sun), the child herself, a columnist at Maddie’s paper, a waitress at a local diner, a medium, a movie-goer, a bartender, even a clairvoyant Maddie consults. There are, at my count, over fifteen narrative POVs, most negative as their lens turns and settles on Maddie. But Maddie’s voice remains the most engrossing, her head the one you’d rather be in. In other words, there was much I enjoyed of Lippman’s mystery, but much I grew impatient with. The whiplash of changing POVs with every quite short chapter was vertiginous. But for Maddie and the seedy, complex world of 1966 Baltimore, I would have grown restless. As an experiment in a multi-voiced mystery novel capturing a time and place and all its tensions, this totally works. As a pleasurable read, not so much. Still, I’d love to hear if any of my readers have read it and what they might have to say about it.
Laura Lippman’s The Lady In the Lake is published by William Morrow. It was released on July 23rd and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from William Morrow, via Edelweiss+.