Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman


I have listened to some of Laura Lippman’s series of detective stories set in Baltimore featuring Tess Monaghan, but do not write about them here. This book is set in Baltimore and though it has some features of that detective series, its strength comes from other sources.

The protagonist is Madeline Schwartz, a super efficient late-thirties Jewish matron in the mid-sixties. She tells us of the moment she realizes that having raised a teenage son and having been the ideal wife of a lawyer, she wants to “do something” and begins by moving to her own apartment. She discovered the body of a murdered child, began an affair with a black policeman, got a job at a newspaper, and kicked off a career in journalism by pursuing the question of who murdered a black woman.

Much of the narration is first person and gives voice to many of the characters she encounters; they all have something to say, it turns out. Notably, her husband Milton Schwartz and her son Seth remain silent. Hearing from all those minor characters was a great device that enriched the story. One I particularly liked was a waitress in a lunch place where Matty took a mentor from the newspaper to enlist his help. The mentor was one of the waitress’ regulars and hearing her take on their conversation and a quick sketch of her own life was appealing.

The plot was complicated enough to be interesting. It had a surprise twist that was just the right level of surprise, without giving the reader the feeling of being misled.

Lippman makes the time and place of the novel an important aspect of it. As she does with her Tess series, place is not neglected; in this one the locations of Jewish life in Baltimore are named and described. Even more than place, in this book, the time is of interest. What Mattie wore and how that changed as she moved from her role as a housewife to the world of work reflects the time. Racial matters are at the heart of the book. In reflecting on the difference between herself and her parents, she says

He [her father] had been born on the boat en route to the United States. 1906. Sixty years ago. How could 1906 and 1966 be part of the same century? In 1906 there had been no world wars, most people didn’t have telephones and cars, in 1906 women couldn’t vote and black men could by law but not in practice. Her parents seemed impossibly distant from her. She seemed distant from herself. Mattie couldn’t believe she was related to the woman who used to sit in this same chair, eating this same Rosh Hashanah meal (minus her fancy chopped liver). She felt a chill, almost as if a ghost passed through her, but it was the ghost of who she used to be. Forget 1906 and 1966. Mattie couldn’t believe that 1965 and 1966 were part of the same century. She was different.

Mattie had a younger friend from the Jewish community who worked to involve Mattie in a wider world, in particular Democratic Party activities. To the consternation of her parents she is interested in men beyond those in her Jewish world. She tells Mattie about a man named Monaghan she particularly likes. If you’ve read the Tess series, you recognize that Mattie’s friend is Tess’s mother. Nice little touch.

Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake, William Morrow, 2019, 340 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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