Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Baltimore 1966 – a/k/a “The good ole days.” (For some people.)
Madeline Schwartz has been a wife and mother for almost two decades when she suddenly decides to turn her back on the boring comforts of the upper middle class. It isn’t easy for a woman in her late ‘30s to start over, but she begins pulling together a new life, including a secret relationship with an African-American cop. When Maddie discovers the body of a murder victim she manages to eventually leverage that into an entry level job at one of the local newspapers. She wants to become a real reporter, and when the body of Cleo Sherwood is found in a lake Maddie begins to research Cleo’s life and death even though everyone tells her that nobody cares about the story of a black party girl who met a bad end.
What Laura Lippman has written here is a character driven crime novel that smoothly shifts through a variety of viewpoints. Not only do we get the ghostly voice of Cleo who expresses dismay at how Maddie’s investigation is only stirring up trouble, but there are many short first-person interludes from the different people that Maddie interacts with. Sometimes these encounters make a big impact on her, like a dinner party with an old high school friend, and sometimes it’s a person that Maddie barely registers, like a waitress who serves her lunch. All of these characters have their own stories going on, and some of them are important to Maddie’s and some have no direct bearing on her at all. When you put them all together you get vivid picture of a bygone era as well as the full story of what happened to Cleo.
Lippman trusts the reader to remember what they’ve read in these parts so that very often we don’t see key events, and you have to infer what’s happened based on what we know about these other characters. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but it all fits the tone and structure of the book so that the reader comes to feel like just one of these flies on the wall that knows far more about Maddie’s business than she realizes.
The center of all this is Maddie, and again Lippman delivers with a detailed story about a complex woman whose old secrets put her on a path that she is now desperately trying to change. Her courage and determination are admirable, and yet there’s also a sense of entitlement to Maddie. Yes, she’s a woman struggling against sexism, but she also blithely assumes she can do a job that she’s had no experience or training for. She’s also willing to do some shady things to get what she wants, and she has little regard what damage she might do other people. Sometimes she comes across as the sympathetic hero of the story, but there are points where she seems like the villain of it. I didn’t always like Maddie, but I was always interested in her.
This also acts as kind of low key tribute to the newspaper business even if watching the sausage get made isn’t always pretty, and Lippman, a former journalist herself, ends the book with a moving tribute to the five employees of the Capital Gazette who were killed during a mass shooting at their office.
Top notch writing, great character work, and a unique structure all make for one compelling book.
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