Everyone knows the dangers of being in the news business these days, but Laura Lippman’s new novel “Lady in the Lake” is a powerful reminder that the search for the truth has always been a precarious and underappreciated one. In an eerie and heartbreaking coincidence, the day after Lippman turned in the final draft of her book, five members of the staff of the Capital Gazette — Rob Hiaasen, Gerald Fischman, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith and Wendi Winters — were killed by a gunman in the paper’s Annapolis newsroom. Lippman was friends with Hiaasen, and in the acknowledgments of the book, she dedicates what she calls her “weird love letter to Baltimore newspapers of the ’60s” to them. Her book is that and more.
Inspired by the unsolved death of Shirley Parker, a barmaid and secretary whose body was found in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park in June of 1969, Lippman’s ambitious novel weaves some 20 points of view into a seamless, vivid whole. The novel demonstrates that Lippman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, is both a skilled journalist and a masterful novelist.
The story centers on two narrators: Cleo Sherwood, a fictionalized version of Parker, and Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz, a fictional Jewish housewife in her late 30s who decides to walk out on her rote, suburban life and find her own path. The two women’s stories come together in a most unusual way.
When a young neighborhood girl goes missing, Maddie and a new friend, Judith, search for her. Maddie’s instincts lead them to an amazing discovery, and, for Maddie, a purpose. She gets a small apartment downtown, a black boyfriend, Fergie, who happens to be a cop, and a job at the afternoon newspaper, the Star, where she answers readers’ questions in a public help column. When she follows up on a letter to get the lights at the Druid Hill Park Fountain turned back on, Cleo’s body, much like Parker’s in 1969, is discovered inside the fountain.
Although no one is interested in the suspicious death of a young black woman (similar to Parker, whose mysterious death garnered little attention in the main newspapers of record), Cleo becomes Maddie’s personal beacon. Maddie works after hours to talk to those close to Cleo, while also receiving tips from Fergie. As the stakes become higher, Maddie — stepping on toes and forgoing protocol out of determination, naivete, or a little bit of both — endangers not only her own life but others’.
There’s a lovely dance of female leads at the heart of the novel. Maddie and Cleo are from different worlds, but their struggle for independence during a time of barriers to women — racism for Cleo and sexism for Maddie — bind them in a Chinese finger trap that tugs tighter as they assert themselves and love who they want. Lippman isn’t a stranger to stories involving race (see “Butchers Hill” and “Every Secret Thing”), and here she casts a wide net in the quest for authenticity, including the perspectives of Cleo’s family and other traditionally underrepresented voices.
And although Maddie is given more page time than Cleo, Cleo’s desires feel surprisingly clearer and more relatable, even if she is narrating from beyond the grave. Part of it be may that Cleo’s passages are in the first person and Maddie’s in the third, but part of it has to do with how closely Maddie guards her relationship with Fergie and other secrets while examining (thoughtlessly, at times) every detail of Cleo’s. It doesn’t help that Maddie’s other secret — something that happened before her marriage to her soon-to-be ex-husband — is alluded to but not revealed until much later in the novel, where it feels an afterthought rather than a key to her motivations.
Unlike Parker, whose 1969 death remains unsolved, Lippman builds a slow-burning, precise case for Cleo’s murderer before throwing the reader for a loop in the end, reminding us how much of solving mysteries is being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time.
In the end, though, it’s the kaleidoscope of perspectives, an intricate quilt of 1960s Baltimore — newspaper staffers, bartenders, waitresses, police officers and local athletes, many of them based on real people — that illuminates “The Lady in the Lake.” Lippman writes with a nuanced understanding of character, and each voice is distinct. (Lippman, ever meticulous, even consulted a baseball historian when capturing the point of view of a certain beloved 1960s Baltimore Orioles outfielder.) And although some characters don’t seem to add much to the mystery of Cleo’s death, Lippman uses them to show the many layers a reporter must sift through while pursuing a lead. “The Lady of the Lake” is more than a “weird love letter to Baltimore newspapers” — it is an earnest and beautiful homage to a city and its people.
Jen Michalski, a Baltimore native, is the author of several novels and short story collections, including “The Tide King” and “The Summer She Was Under Water.” At 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 25, Laura Lippman will be in conversation with author Neely Tucker at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow. 352 pp. $26.99