Source: Review copy; Netgalley
Publication: 25th July 2019 from Faber & Faber
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 1964 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 out of the fountain in Druid Hill Park, Maddie thinks she is about to uncover a story that will finally get her name in print. What she can’t imagine is how much trouble she will cause by chasing a story that no-one wants her to tell.
Laura Lippman has produced a stunning, haunting novel depicting life in a changing mid-1960’s Baltimore. With a huge canvas of characters, each of whom she gives a voice, Lippman has produced a classic noir novel that chronicles the social mores of the times.
This is immersive writing; rich and flavoursome, which draws in the reader so that we experience the sights, sounds and smells of a city in a state of flux.
Madeleine Schwartz is a 37 year old housewife with one son. Living a comfortable life in a nice suburb, she realises that she is in a life she never really wanted. All her life she has followed the route expected of her; marrying a steady Jewish man, Milton, of whom her parents approve. But Maddie is restless. This is not the life she wants. She is stifled, bored and fed up entertaining the bores her husband brings home for business entertainment.
So she decides to leave and moves to an apartment in a poor area in downtown Baltimore. Her son Seth decides not to come with her and so for the first time she is free to live her own life.
Maddie is echoing the experiences of many educated women in the 1960’s; a time when women were challenging societal norms; when it was still illegal for a black man and a white woman to be a couple and assumptions would be made if those positions were reversed. Racial tensions were at the fore and desegregation still an evolving process in many US states.
It isn’t long before Maddie realises she is short of money and needing work. She finds herself an illicit lover and after stumbling over a young woman’s dead body on a search for the missing young woman, Cleo Sherwood, manages to talk her way into a lowly job helping on the Reader’s Help Desk of the Baltimore Star.
Though it’s a lowly job in the pecking order and she’s only got it as a result of accidentally finding Cleo’s body, Maddie realises she has found her environment. She’s in the place she wants to be and she is determined to make her mark and rise through the ranks to get her own byline.
Finding Cleo Sherwood’s story and her killer will be, she decides, her route to this success, even though no-one cares about ‘another black woman’ going missing.
What makes Lippman’s novel stand out is the fact that we hear from every character that Maddie meets; whether flesh and blood or ghost, we get a running internal narration from an array of characters each of whom has their own perspective on Maddie and what she is doing.
As an exploration of gender, race and class, it is a triumphant exploration of 1960’s society and how overwhelming prejudice was in those days; fought by one individual at a time.
It is clever, gripping and a love song to a changing city which speaks as if it was a character. Lady in the Lake is both a crime novel and a rich, luxurious painting of the times. The interaction between Maddie’s voice and that of Cleo shows us so clearly the prejudices that Cleo has to face and the impossibility of rising above her circumstances.
Though primarily this is Maddie’s story, it is also Cleo’s and while Maddie may find a way to break through as a symbol that women’s oppression is undergoing change, Cleo’s life faces harsher challenges.
Verdict: I loved this book and it’s startling and clear depiction of the times. Colourful, immersive, always transfixing, it is a beautifully written peon of praise to a changing city. It is also a timely reminder of a not too distant past. Lest we forget….*
*Reviewers note: Lippman could have no way of knowing that, on 27 July 2019, The Baltimore Sun would run an op-ed of which this below is an extract. I append it here in case you think that 1960’s history is a long way away…the whole can be read by clicking on the title.
Baltimore Sun Editorial Board July 27, 2019
In case anyone missed it, the president of the United States had some choice words to describe Maryland’s 7th congressional district on Saturday morning. Here are the key phrases: “no human being would want to live there,” it is a “very dangerous & filthy place,” “Worst in the USA” and, our personal favorite: It is a “rat and rodent infested mess.” He wasn’t really speaking of the 7th as a whole. He failed to mention Ellicott City, for example, or Baldwin or Monkton or Prettyboy, all of which are contained in the sprawling yet oddly-shaped district that runs from western Howard County to southern Harford County. No, Donald Trump’s wrath was directed at Baltimore and specifically at Rep. Elijah Cummings, the 68-year-old son of a former South Carolina sharecropper who has represented the district in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1996.
It’s not hard to see what’s going on here. The congressman has been a thorn in this president’s side, and Mr. Trump sees attacking African American members of Congress as good politics, as it both warms the cockles of the white supremacists who love him and causes so many of the thoughtful people who don’t to scream. President Trump bad-mouthed Baltimore in order to make a point that the border camps are “clean, efficient & well run,” which, of course, they are not — unless you are fine with all the overcrowding, squalor, cages and deprivation to be found in what the Department of Homeland Security’s own inspector-general recently called “a ticking time bomb.”
Laura Lippman was a reporter for twenty years, including twelve years at The (Baltimore) Sun. She began writing novels while working full-time and published seven books about “accidental PI” Tess Monaghan before leaving daily journalism in 2001.
Her work has been awarded the Edgar ®, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Shamus, the Nero Wolfe, Gumshoe and Barry awards.
She also has been nominated for other prizes in the crime fiction field, including the Hammett and the Macavity. She was the first-ever recipient of the Mayor’s Prize for Literary Excellence and the first genre writer recognized as Author of the Year by the Maryland Library Association. Ms. Lippman grew up in Baltimore and attended city schools through ninth grade.
After graduating from Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, Md., Ms. Lippman attended Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Her other newspaper jobs included the Waco Tribune-Herald and the San Antonio Light.
Ms. Lippman returned to Baltimore in 1989 and has lived there since. She is the daughter of the late Theo Lippman Jr., a Sun editorial writer who retired in 1995, and Madeline Mabry Lippman, a former Baltimore City school librarian. Her sister, Susan, is a local bookseller.