What We’re Reading: The Lady In The Lake, By Laura Lippman
“Alive I was Cleo Sherwood. Dead, I became the Lady in the Lake, a nasty broken thing, dragged from the fountain after steeping there for months. And no one cared until you came along… Oh, Maddie Schwartz, do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
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 1966 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 from a fountain in one of the city’s parks, Maddie thinks she is about to uncover a story that will make her name. What she can’t imagine is how much trouble she will cause by chasing a story that no one wants her to tell.”
I wasn’t quite sure what I expected when I picked up The Lady in the Lake — I can’t get enough of crime drama shows on TV, but I have never really read any books in the genre, but the blurb drew me in so it seemed like a good place to start.
One thing I loved about this book is the way Lippman has written each chapter from the perspectives of different characters, all in the first person. It takes you a minute at the start of each chapter to situate yourself and work out whose perspective you’re reading from, which only adds to the mystery.
The main protagonist of the story, Maddie, who takes it upon herself to investigate Cleo’s death and disappearance is such a rich and complex character. We see her growth from shy, housewife, repressed by her strict husband, to ambitious divorcee who cannot be stopped in her quest to become a serious journalist, despite everything sexist 1960s society can throw at her. She isn’t always likeable the whole way through, but I think her flaws make her a more relatable character; not everyone is perfect after all. After she finds the body of a young girl, Tessie Fine who had gone missing, she becomes convinced there is more to the story. She digs deeper and sure enough, begins to find things out. Her determination for the truth is admirable and she will go a long way to find it, even if it means upsetting people in the process. Perhaps for Maddie, finding truth for Tessie and Cleo is born from selfishness, or perhaps a sense of justice, but do her motives matter if she finds the truth?
The novel also touches upon the social issues of racism and sexism in a nuanced way — it is enjoyable to see a book filled with diverse characters who aren’t there to form a token minority or a plot point, as is so often the case. I also enjoyed the flair and style Lippman brings to her writing — the attention to detail with which outfits and interiors are described really placed me in 1960s Baltimore. Such rich and realistic writing means that you really become immersed in the story, yet like all good crime storylines, we are left guessing right until the final pages. I will certainly be reading more of her work.
Lady in the Lake is out on 25th July, published by Faber.