“Lady in the Lake” By Laura Lippman, William Morrow, 2019 $26.99
Maddie Schwartz is a perfect homemaker. In mid-1960s Baltimore, she keeps an immaculate house, sets a fine table and is a gracious hostess when her husband, Milton, entertains for business. But Maddie is unhappy, a situation she realizes when Milton brings a guest home unexpectedly.
The guest, Wallace Wright, is an old acquaintance Maddie can’t forget — much as she would like to. When they were kids and he was Wally Weiss and she was Madeline Morgenstern, they had one date, an evening she’d prefer never happened.
Maddie is unhappy, desperate to make a change.
Laura Lippman makes Maddie’s life the focus of “Lady in the Lake,” a mystery novel that recreates a period of American history and the awakening of one woman’s liberation.
Out on her own, without Milton and their son, Seth, in a neighborhood she once would have disdained to drive through, Maddie is intrigued by the local news coverage of a missing girl. Linking it to a case from her own childhood, she is instrumental in solving the disappearance and she relies on that experience to push her way into a job at the Star, not the best newspaper in town, but a starting point for a career.
As the assistant to the “Mr. Helpline” columnist, Maddie’s job involves sorting the mail and determining which letters are suitable for the column. A question about a park fountain that has gone dark is Maddie’s ticket to a newspaper career. At least, that’s how she sees it.
In the fountain, police find a body identified as Cleo Sherwood, a young black woman, mother of two boys, a woman whose death seems insignificant to police and Maddie’s editors. Not to Maddie, who is determined to solve the mystery and make her mark in Baltimore journalism.
The newly liberated Maddie also gets involved in a relationship with Ferdinand “Ferdie” Platt, a black police officer. Their clandestine affair offers adventurous sex, but not much else beyond a couple of tips that Maddie can parlay into good stories for the Star.
She’ll also learn more than she expected about the underbelly of Baltimore politics.
Lippman sets “Lady in the Lake” apart from many mysteries by including a chorus of other voices. Most surprising are occasional comments from Cleo Sherwood, who adds her perspective to Maddie’s investigations. Other commentators who share their thoughts with the reader include a professional baseball player, a psychic, a waitress and a man who can’t keep his hands to himself in a movie theater.
Lippman’s mystery series and her standalone novels often feature Baltimore, where she got her start as a writer on the Sun. She paints a great picture of newsrooms in the days before computers and the internet, when the competition was other papers, not 24-hour cable news.
“Lady in the Lake” is dedicated to the memory of a former co-worker, Rob Hiaasen, and the four other journalists who died with him when a man with a gun opened fire the Annapolis Capital Gazette newsroom on June 28, 2018. She has done them proud.
— Emporia Public Library staff and volunteers write “On the Shelf.”