Sunday, June 16, 2019


LADY IN THE LAKE by Laura Lippman (Faber & Faber, 2019)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

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 many lives she is about to ruin, or how many hearts she's about to break, by chasing a story that no-one thinks is hers to tell.

There are many different ways an author can grab readers from the very first page. Sometimes it's an intriguing first line that draws you in, sometimes it's a stark incident or piece of action that tractor-beams you straight into a propulsive narrative. And sometimes its something subtler but even more powerful (in the right hands): just the pure, mesmerising quality of the writing, the voice.

LADY IN THE LAKE, the latest standalone from the superb Laura Lippman, is a pretty great example of the latter. From the first lines we know we're in the hands of a master storyteller as we're enticed deep into 1960s Baltimore by the voice of Cleo Sherwood, a poor young black woman who's recalling the first time time she saw Maddie Schwartz, then a finely dressed Jewish housewife.

Maddie Schartz would go on to create a whole host of problems for a lot of people, including Cleo, who might have preferred to have been forgotten, despite all the tragedies in her young life.

Cleo and Maggie, two mothers in 1960s Baltimore, different in many ways but both shackled by prejudice. Both woman also hungered for more in their lives, and would risk a lot to chase it.

Perhaps too much.

Unlike Cleo, who goes missing and is rather forgotten and becomes the 'Lady in the Lake' when a body finally emerges from a fountain, Maddie Schwartz gets a chance to be more.

LADY IN THE LAKE follows a pivotal year in Maddie’s life as she flees her stable but stale marriage, trading affluence for independence, domesticity for a search for passion and meaning.

After helping the police find a missing white girl whose story filled the newspapers, Maddie is looking for another story to help her get a foothold in the male-dominated field of journalism, and turns her attention to Cleo, a black woman whose story has been left untold by the white press.

Lippman intercuts Maddie's narrative with rich vignettes, first-person perspectives from a variety of people that Maddie encounters along the way. These chapters really texture the novel and weave together to form a stunning portrait of Baltimore life in that era - the place and the people living in it.

The multiple perspectives also give the reader differing views on how Maddie and her efforts are seen by herself and others. Readers themselves may have mixed feelings about Maddie, and some of the decisions she makes. She is a complex, fascinating character, and has an interesting arc from bored and rather repressed housewife to independent, ambitious career woman unafraid of breaking rules. Throughout it all, Cleo lingers as a contemptful specter as Maddie throws stones into several ponds, oblivious to the dangerous ripples she may be creating in her pursuit of a story to make her name.

Overall, Lippman has forged a sublime, suspenseful tale that flows along so wonderfully that it perhaps obscures its own genius. I was reminded of watching a brilliant musician onstage, or perhaps a particularly special athlete on the field - in each case they can make things that are incredibly difficult look deceptively simple. There's a flow and ease because of their mastery, and we're so entranced but what we see or hear that it's easy to overlook the skill involved. Lippman is that level.

This is a stylish, rich novel from one of the crime genre's very best.

Craig Sisterson is a lawyer turned features writer from New Zealand, now living in London. In recent years he’s interviewed hundreds of crime writers and talked about the genre on national radio, top podcasts, and onstage at books festivals on three continents. He has been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the McIlvanney Prize, and is founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and co-founder of Rotorua Noir. You can heckle him on Twitter. 

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