Once again set in Baltimore, Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake is a crime novel inspired by the 1969 death of Shirley Parker, a woman who worked at Baltimore’s Sphinx Club. Turning to fiction, the Lady in the Lake is Cleo, a black woman with a chequered past, who is initially a missing person until she turns up dead in a fountain in Druid Hill Park.
At the heart of the story is Maddie Schwartz, a well-to-do married woman in her 30s who leaves her husband, Milton, son, Seth, and affluent lifestyle to start a new life. There’s nothing really wrong with the marriage, but Maddie feels “as if she had been living in one of those shoebox dioramas” children build. It’s a ‘perfect’ life in many ways; it’s certainly the type of life that’s expected of her, but Maddie wants more. After leaving Milton and her comfortable life, Maddie receives a small allowance from her husband, sets up in a grotty flat, and she quickly discovers that “post-Milton life was smaller, shabbier.” She tries to sell a ring to raise cash, and this act leads to her illicit relationship with black patrol cop, Ferdie.
When Maddie finds a murdered child during a search, she capitalizes on her social skills and inside knowledge of the case in order to get a start in journalism. Having gained some exclusive information (bedroom talk) she trades this for a minor job assisting the Helpline columnist of the Baltimore Star, a man named Don Heath. Once in this job, Maddie becomes involved in the Cleo Sherwood case, and ambition drives Maddie onward.
The story is told through a host of characters. With any crime, stories narrow down to victim and perpetrator. We tend to forget that many lives are irrevocably altered by a murder. Sweeping in all the people impacted by Cleo’s death (as well as sundry others) Lippman captures the sensation of the ripples from Cleo’s death. However, while some voices added a great deal to the story, others seemed superfluous. I liked seeing Maddie through the eyes of other characters, and while I was never quite convinced by Maddie’s drive to leave her cocooned life with Milton, other characters’ impressions of Maddie helped fill out her character. Maddie is a privileged woman whose social position opens doors, and she seems to be a bit on the powder puff side, yet the stunt she pulls with her ring reveals a hard side, and it’s clear that Maddie is going to have a career, a good career as she’s extremely ambitious. Maddie’s ambition is nicely contrasted against many other characters whose lives are sad and disappointing. There’s reporter Bob Bauer who compares his private life to a Baltimore version of Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball, yet Bauer’s wife is severely incapacitated by MS. Then there’s Don Heath who knows that he cannot outrun dementia.
I don’t think anyone lives long enough to imagine his next decade accurately. You get to thirty and you think you know what forty will be like, but you don’t, then comes fifty and boy does forty look good. I’m fifty-eight now and I’m not going to pretend I have a clue what my seventh decade will be, other than disappointing. Because every decade so far has been less than I hoped; why should the next one be different?
Not Lippman’s best; the story is too fragmented for that, but Lady in the Lake breathes life into the Baltimore world of the 60s, rife with racism and sexism.