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.
Having read, reviewed and enjoyed Laura Lippman’s complex psychological thriller Sunburn last year, I was excited to learn she was turning her attention to historic crime for her latest standalone novel, The Lady in the Lake.
However, in the same way that Sunburn wasn’t solely a psychological thriller – instead playing and subverting with the tropes of classic noir fiction – The Lady in the Lake isn’t a traditional ‘crime’ novel. Lippman is a writer who defies narrow genre boundaries and, whilst the events leading up to and the investigation of two very distinct murders in 1960s Baltimore provide the driving force for the book, there’s more to The Lady in the Lake than finding out whodunnit.
At the heart of the book is wannabe journalist Madeline Schwartz. Recently separated from her lawyer husband, Maddie is a woman trying to define herself on her own terms for the very first time in her life. Ambitious, observant, and calculating, Maddie makes for a compelling lead and, whilst I couldn’t always agree with her methods, I admired her spark and her determination. As with Polly in Sunburn, Lippman has a gift for creating psychologically complex female leads – whilst I’m not sure I would want to be her friend, I definitely wanted to get to know Madeline Schwartz.
Unafraid to play with narrative conventions, Lippman has fun with the trope of the unreliable narrator here too. Interspersed amidst Maddie’s narrative of her investigation into the murder of Cleo Sherwood are chapters from a range of alternative viewpoints. From ‘Lady Law’, Baltimore’s first black female police officer who Maddie is sent to interview, through to ‘Mr Helpline’, the ageing reporter who fears she will steal his job, these alternative narratives provide a fascinating counterpoint to Maddie’s own construction of her self and her actions. And then, of course, there are the intermissions from Cleo Sherwood herself; the ‘Lady in the Lake’, who is less than eager for her secrets to be discovered.
What struck me most reading The Lady in the Lake is Lippman’s talent for observation. Maddie is an observer at heart, an unflinching chronicler of both herself and those around her. What makes her a good journalist is her ability to use that to charm or manipulate her way to the information she wants. Lippman is also an observer and she has created a compelling account of 1960s American life that leaps off the page and charms the reader in spite of the messy, segregation-era politics that abound amidst the pages. The city and its denizens felt alive whilst I was reading and each of the many voices in the novel felt distinct – a real testament to Lippman’s ability.
As with Sunburn, The Lady in the Lake is a marathon, not a sprint. Although the narrative and the characters are compelling, this isn’t a ‘page-turner’ because of the action or multiple cliffhangers. Instead, the prose invites you to take a leisurely stroll through the pages, savouring the descriptions and revelling in the company of the characters and the evocation of the past that Lippman has conjured onto the page. The Lady in the Lake is a worthy successor to Sunburn, and a fantastic addition to any mystery suspense fan’s reading list this summer.
My thanks go to Lauren Nicoll and Namra Amir from Faber & Faber for providing me with a copy of the book and inviting me to take part in this blog tour in return for an honest and unbiased review. The tour continues until 11 August 2019 so do check out the other stops along the way for features, reviews, and more!