Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman: is clever, compelling and the classiest murder mystery you will read this year - book review -

Lady In The Lake
Lady In The Lake

Lady in the Lake, a sophisticated, multi-genre, crime noir masterpiece which explores a breathtaking range of issues from race, gender and sexism to press power and male prejudice, all set amidst the volatile politics of 1960s America.

Since 1997, author Laura Lippman has been gaining a well-earned reputation as one of the best chroniclers of contemporary life in the USA.

A former journalist, Lippman, who lives in Baltimore, has been awarded every major prize in crime fiction and is best known for her ultra-smart series of novels featuring Tess Monaghan, a reporter turned private investigator.

But this thrilling writer is not just a one-trick pony and her superb standalones – not least last year’s gripping Sunburn, a bold and unsettling story about a pair of lovers locked in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse – have seen her novels soar into the upper echelons of crime writing.

And 2019 must surely be the year when she hits the loftiest heights with Lady in the Lake, a sophisticated, multi-genre, crime noir masterpiece which explores a breathtaking range of issues from race, gender and sexism to press power and male prejudice, all set amidst the volatile politics of 1960s America.

In 1966, Baltimore is a city of secrets that everyone seems to know… everyone except Madeline ‘Maddie’ Schwartz. Last year, she was a happy, 36-year-old Jewish housewife, mother to teenage son Seth and wife since the age of 18 to wealthy Milton Schwartz.

Now she has had ‘a glimpse of the road not taken,’ has bolted from her stale marriage, found an apartment, and is determined to make good on her youthful ambitions to live a passionate, meaningful life.

Maddie wants to matter, to leave her mark on a swiftly changing world and drawing on her own secrets, she helps Baltimore police find murdered 11-year-old girl Tessie Fine, assistance that leads to a job at the city’s afternoon newspaper, the Star.

Working at the paper offers Maddie the opportunity to make her name, and she has found just the story to do it… a missing woman whose body was discovered in the fountain of a city park lake.

Cleo Sherwood was a young black woman who liked to have a good time. No one seems to know or care why she was killed except Maddie, and the dead woman herself. Maddie’s going to find the truth about Cleo’s life and death even though Cleo’s ghost, who is privy to Maddie’s poking and prying, desperately wants to be left alone.

Maddie’s investigation brings her into contact with people who used to be on the periphery of her life… a jewellery store clerk, a waitress, a hardened female reporter and a lonely man in a film theatre.

But for all her ambition and drive, Maddie often fails to see the people right in front of her. Her inability to look beyond her own needs will lead to tragedy and turmoil for all sorts of people… including the man who shares her bed, a black police officer who cares for Maddie more than she knows.

Lady in the Lake was always going to be an ambitious undertaking but Lippman pulls it off in style with an intriguing murder mystery forming the central core of a story which perfectly captures the mood, atmosphere and social politics of both time and place by fielding a chorus of narrative voices from all walks of life through which truth and lies are exposed.

This is an author almost uniquely attuned to the rhythms of human thought, allowing her readers access to every corner of the city and every secret thought as a panorama of events, both past and present, scatter clues and red herrings across the pages.

Lippman’s writing flows like a river in full spate as the two principals, Cleo and Maddie, and a seemingly random cast of disparate secondary players, act out their parts in a plot tingling with suspense and sexual frissons, only for the final act to knock all whodunit theories for six.

Lady in the Lake is clever, compelling and the classiest murder mystery you will read this year…

(Faber & Faber, paperback, £12.99)