In Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman sweeps readers back in time to 1960s Baltimore, where the body of a young, African-American woman is found floating in a lake. No one seems to know who she is, nor do they seem all that interested in finding out, so housewife-turned-reporter Maddie Schwartz decides to solve the case for reasons of her own. Not only does this novel deliver a fascinating mystery, but it also explores the darkest parts of the human heart and mind as it unearths dangerous secrets.
Maddie Schwartz has just walked out on her life, and she doesn’t regret it one little bit. Sure, it means her relationship with her teenaged son will be strained for the next little while, and her social standing has plummeted to something approaching non-existent, but in Maddie’s mind, it’s all worth it. Now, she’ll be free to explore the parts of herself her husband never wanted to get to know, and maybe she’ll even find a way she can make a difference to the world at large while she’s at it.
Living in a slightly seedy apartment in a poorer area of Baltimore isn’t quite what Maddie had in mind. Her neighbors appear quite suspicious of her presence in their midst, and no one she approaches is willing to let down their guard and get to know her for who really is. But when she discovers the body of a missing eleven-year-old girl, her life gets a lot more interesting. Suddenly, Maddie knows exactly how she wants to leave her mark on the world. Now, all she has to do is put her plan into action.
Through a series of complicated events I won’t go into here, Maddie talks herself into a job at a local newspaper. She dreams of becoming a reporter, but with absolutely no experience in the field, she knows she’ll have to start off at the bottom and work her way up. Fortunately for Maddie, she’s given ample opportunities to prove herself, and it’s not long before she manages to get her name on a few popular stories.
Meanwhile, the body of Cleo Sherwood is found in a lake, and Maddie is desperate to know how she ended up there, but she seems to be the only one who’s interested. Her superiors at the paper caution her not to get involved, reminding her that the African-American-run papers have covered the story to no avail. But Maddie is unable to leave well enough alone, and she sets out on a personal quest to learn the truth about what happened to Cleo, heedless of who she might hurt along the way.
Maddie is a hard character to like, but I honestly can’t imagine the story working so well if she had been any other way. Her world view is pretty narrow, and although she gives lip service to wanting to broaden her horizons, the reader is never fully sure of her motivations for wanting to do this. Everything she does centers around her own interests, even though she doesn’t always realize it, and even her investigation into Cleo’s death ends up being more about Maddie than Cleo herself. Still, Maddie does manage to learn a bit about herself and her place in the world by the story’s end. She’s far from perfect, but I appreciated the author’s ability to craft such a deeply flawed heroine.
Maddie is the central character, but we hear from lots of other people as well. Most of the characters appear only once or twice, just long enough to share their own small part of the story. You won’t understand the relevance of these people until closer to the end of the book, but I urge you to stick with it, even if the constantly changing points of view start to bug you. I found myself questioning what certain people had to do with anything, only to have it make total sense by the end.
I’ve read several of Ms. Lippman’s other books, and have loved the strong sense of place she manages to weave into her work. Lady in the Lake is no different in that Baltimore itself almost feels like a character in its own right. The author’s deep love for this location shines through on every page, making me wish I could spend time in the neighborhoods she manages to bring to life so vividly.
The mystery itself is utterly enthralling, and I found myself unable to put the book down once I started reading. There were several times I was sure I had things figured out, only to learn I was wrong on all counts. Ms. Lippman is a master storyteller, skilfully combining elements of crime, historical fiction, and even a bit of women’s fiction to create one of the best books I’ve read so far this year.
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