Laura Lippman’s “Wilde Lake” is one of her best novels and feels like one of her most personal. The story takes us deep into the life of Luisa (Lu) Brant, seen both as a child and as the state’s attorney of Howard County, Maryland. The book is unusual in that Lippman spends more time relating Lu’s childhood and family life than she does the novel’s nominal plot, which concerns a murder case that Lu prosecutes. But Lippman’s portrayal of Lu’s girlhood and family is so exceptional, readers won’t miss the legal drama. You rarely find characterizations as sensitive as these in genre fiction or, indeed, any fiction.
The novel feels personal in several regards. As it opens, Lu has just been elected state’s attorney, the office her father once held with distinction. Lippman also followed in her father’s footsteps as a journalist at the Baltimore Sun.There’s a hint of Atticus Finch and Scout in the book’s father-daughter portrait, and the novel is dedicated to the author’s father, Theo Lippman Jr., who died two years ago.
In another parallel, Lippman attended the same high school — Wilde Lake High School, in Columbia, Md. — as Lu’s older brother and several other characters in the novel. The novel opens beside Columbia’s Wilde Lake, where the 1980 graduating seniors from Wilde Lake High are celebrating. Lu’s brother A.J. and his friends are there, drinking beer and horsing around when some young toughs with a grudge arrive. Within seconds, one of A.J.’s close friends is badly injured and one of the attackers is dead. After another of the attackers is sent to prison, this violent outburst seems to fade away, but in truth it haunts all that follows.
The novel moves easily between Lu’s past and present. Her mother died soon after her birth, her father is beloved but preoccupied with his legal duties, and she’s largely raised by a strict housekeeper called Teensy. We see Lu shadowing her older brother and his friends (“I learned to ride a bicycle well and fearlessly that summer I was 6 years old because I was trying to keep up with two 14-year-olds”), then she’s baffled by the mystery of how babies happen and horrified when a boy in the fourth grade wants to kiss her. But she’s smart and determined and in time she rejects a suggestion that she attend an all-girls school because she loves competing against boys — and beating them. She confides, “I don’t think it’s an accident that I married the smartest person I’ve ever known,”a line that will amuse readers familiar with Lippman’s marriage to David Simon, the creator of “The Wire” and other memorable television dramas.
At 45, Lu is a widow, the mother of twins, and an ambitious politician. She has no time for dating, much less marriage. But, answering the call of “healthy, harmless lust,” she meets regularly with a married friend she has known since childhood. Their trysts are carefully focused: “She doesn’t waste a lot of time talking to him.”
Soon after her election, Lu prosecutes a murder case in which a homeless man is charged with killing a woman. It at first seems open and shut, but of course there are complications, and Lu’s investigation leads her back to events at Wilde Lake High School many years in the past.
Along the way, Lippman takes realistic looks at teenage sex, at a boy who learns he’s gay, at unhappy marriages, at the challenges of family life and, underlying everything, at the way the past keeps overtaking the present, despite our best efforts to escape it. Nor does Lippman hesitate to comment on real-world events in the Baltimore she knows so well. After one of her fictional characters attempts “suicide by cop,” she offers this digression:
“It was April 2015. Police were obligingly shooting young men everywhere. Four weeks later, Baltimore would burn in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, his body broken on a classic Baltimore bounce, an unsecured ride in a police van.”
Lippman’s novels are tough-minded, entertaining, heartfelt and wise, and they have deservedly won the Edgar award, the Anthony, the Agatha and every other crime-fiction prize. She’s one of today’s essential writers, and this, her 20th novel, reminds us why.
Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers for Book World.
On May 6 at 7 p.m., Laura Lippman will be at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-1919. politics-prose.com.
By Laura Lippman
Morrow. 352 pp. $26.99