Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman

Review Written By
Andrea Thompson

Madeline Schwartz has efficiently raised her only child to teenage hood, and it is now the time for some serious life re-alignment.  Maddie needs to figure out exactly what it is that she wants out of the next stage of her life. This all happens in a time where newly single or divorced women were considered threats by other women and likely opportunities to be exploited by men.  First off, what is determined that must be discarded is Maddie’s husband Milton, despite how this will lower Maddie’s status in Baltimore society, and take her some distance from the comfortable lifestyle that she has become well accustomed to.  Milton never knew did know much about his glamourous wife anyway and at the age of 37, Maddie feels she is on the cusp of not always being able to use her natural talents of charm and attraction to her own advantage.  The mid 1960’s was still largely a man’s world, and up to now Maddie has rolled along with life’s changes as circumspectly as her sense of self has allowed.

The discovery of a young woman’s body in a fountain has everyone talking in the new working class neighbourhood that Maddie has had to relocate herself to.  Maddie can’t put her sophisticated finger on exactly why she feels she needs to ask the pertinent questions about the death of this woman, but with no one else actively pursuing the case, she feels that it might as well be her.  Once upon a time, before life took Maddie far away from the aspiring journalist her teenage self thought she might one day be, Maddie was quite the verbal sharp shooter.  It’s time to go back to who that person was.

There is a lot that can be thrown into the mixing bowl that was the 60’s, and Lippman manages to present the era in such a way that is quite dispassionate, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusions of either outrage or acceptance.  How little some things may have changed in the succeeding fifty odd years.  Bedding down the era and setting is quite a dry exercise in this novel, but it is totally credible.  To write and effective period piece a writer needs to capture many things about a particular point in history, and Lippman richly brings 1960’s Baltimore with all of its sexism, racism, class boundaries and political concerns to the page holistically. They are all here, and Maddie needs to negotiate her way around all the invisible boundaries and restraints that her sex and circumstances dictate she must observe. Likewise, so once did the victim, a young woman of ‘colour’, Cleo Sherwood.

LADY IN THE LAKE is a novel about drive and ambition, illustrating the differences the two women face when seeking to change their lives in a time that would appear to offer either few real choices.  The idea of a man as a financial plan presents itself to one, whilst the other has ticked that box in the past and no longer sees the continued wisdom in doing so.

Author Laura Lippman is too well known an author for an incoming reader to have any doubts that this was going to be an elegantly written and intelligent work.  Lippman has won swags of awards for her work, and has that luxury of not pigeonholing her crime novels into a particular framework that might dictate how a work should present its conflicts and resolutions.

LADY IN THE LAKE is a curious piece that belatedly does try to wrap things up in a box towards conclusion as if the intent of the work changed at some point and the marching on of the word count prompted something a little more pedestrian to wrap things up with.  The detailed print world of a 20th century Baltimore newspaper during a time of such social upheaval is insightful and interesting to read of, with all its gender issues centred around imbalance and the lack of representation that must have irritated the hell out of anyone living in the vicinity at the time.  This is not a fast paced thriller or an overly convoluted mystery but a careful placement of two different women in an era that is dismissive of them, and of their importance.

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A stunning, multi-voiced, period piece - tackling race, gender politics, and the volatility of mid '60s America - from the author of SUNBURN

Cleo Sherwood disappeared eight months ago. Aside from her parents and the two sons she left behind, no one seems to have noticed. It isn't hard to understand why: it's 1964 and neither the police, the public nor the papers care much when Negro women go missing.

Maddie Schwartz - recently separated from her husband, working her first job as an assistant at the Baltimore Sun- wants one thing: a byline. When she hears about an unidentified body that's been pulled out of the fountain in Druid Hill Park, Maddie thinks she is about to uncover a story that will finally get her name in print. What she can't imagine is how much trouble she will cause by chasing a story that no-one wants her to tell. 

Review Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman
Andrea Thompson
Wednesday, August 28, 2019

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