In her new novel “Lady in the Lake,” set in 1966, Lippman — the best-selling author of more than two dozen books — draws upon both events to illustrate the racism, classism and sexism that plagued Baltimore 50 years ago.
Readers are introduced to Maddie Schwartz, a 37-year-old Jewish housewife who abruptly leaves her husband and teenage son to pursue long-stifled ambitions. After discovering the body of Tessie Fine, an 11-year-old white girl who had gone missing, Maddie doggedly chases a reporting job at The Star, an afternoon newspaper. She becomes obsessed with Cleo Sherwood, a missing African American woman whose body was discovered in the fountain of a city park — and who is of little interest to anyone outside her immediate family. Much like with Parker’s death, which remains unsolved to this day, there are no leads on Sherwood’s death for the majority of the story. Though Maddie’s quest to discover what happened might appear altruistic, she’s motivated by her own selfish ambitions and desire to succeed at the newspaper.
“The mistake that this woman, Maddie, makes is that being interested in someone’s death is not the same thing as being interested in their life,” says Lippman, 60, who will discuss the novel at Politics and Prose on Thursday. “As much as in some ways I identify with Maddie, I would say Maddie is the person I fear becoming — the person who’s only interested in the story she wants to tell and sometimes forgets about the humanity of the people around her, because she’s so focused on her life and herself.”
“Lady in the Lake” alternates between Maddie’s perspective, narration by Cleo’s ghost and first-person vignettes from nearly 20 people on the periphery of Maddie’s life: a Baltimore Orioles star, a patrol cop, a no-nonsense female reporter. Each helps capture Maddie’s short-sightedness, and how much she’s oblivious to as she attempts to solve Cleo’s murder.
“Even with all these people, I didn’t begin to scratch the surface of the many, many ways one could be a Baltimorean in 1966,” Lippman says. “Across racial identities, age, gender, sexual orientation, I still feel like I missed so much — but I didn’t miss as much as Maddie did.”
Lippman doesn’t trust herself to write accurately about the historical eras she experienced as an adult, let alone as a small child, so she immersed herself in the ’60s through significant research. She exchanged emails, for example, with one of her late father’s newspaper colleagues to get a sense of what it was like to be a reporter in that decade. (Lippman, who spent 12 years reporting at The Baltimore Sun, got her first newsroom job in 1981.) And she turned to advertisements from the ’60s to understand the rhythm of the culture at the time — “because advertising tells us what we were yearning for,” she says. She asked a Baltimore library to pull copies of Time and Vogue magazines from 1966, and she read hundreds of old newspaper stories on microfilm. She also studied the TV listings and watched then-favorites like “Supermarket Sweep” on YouTube.
Lippman is a Baltimorean through and through: She lives in South Baltimore, where her daughter attends public school; her husband, David Simon, created the HBO show “The Wire,” which is set in the Maryland city. But 50 years later, the real-life problems that rippled through Baltimore in “Lady in the Lake” aren’t exactly irrelevant.
“The city is a mixed bag. I love it — it’s my home — but it’s a city that’s really struggling right now,” she says. “I think part of the reason I wrote a book about Baltimore’s past is because it was more knowable to me than Baltimore’s present.”
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Thu., 7 p.m., free.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated which of Lippman’s children attends public school. It has been corrected.