Laura Lippman’s elegant and riveting new novel, Lady in the Lake, is perfect for deep-dive, lake-side reading. Along with last year’s Sunburn, which Chicago’s own Gillian Flynn called a “dark, gleaming noir gem,” Lady in the Lake might be reclaiming noir for women authors and women characters–there’s not a single femme fatale in sight.
Set in the 1960s in Baltimore, the novel introduces us to Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz, a housewife and mother who knows she’s capable of a bigger life. She leaves her husband to find it, losing more than she bargained for. When she helps police locate a missing girl, Maddie senses her calling, on staff of the local newspaper, seeking justice for Cleo Sherwood, a missing person who never hit the headlines because she is black.
If this sounds like Maddie’s using Cleo’s story to get what she wants for herself, well…meet Laura Lippman’s brand of noir.
Lady in the Lake is set in the past and in a particular place, but in its portrayal of social and racial inequity and one woman’s ambition—which can be as blind as any man’s—it offers a universal story, one for not just Maddie’s moment, but for ours as well.
I talked to Lippman about why she set her latest book in the 1960s, the responsibility she feels writing characters whose identities differ than her own, and her own ambitions for what the crime novel can do.
I always ask: where did this book start for you, with an image, a character, with something else?
It started in so many places—in my desire to escape the present-day world after the election in 2016, in my re-reading of Marjorie Morningstar and getting upset at Wally Wronken’s dismissal of Marjorie as now much too old for him (she’s 39!) to a series of photographs from the Catskills resorts of the 1930s. I remember very clearly walking home on a bright, cold winter’s day, cup of coffee in hand, and seeing those photographs and thinking it was a sign that I was onto something with the idea of trying to figure out what happened to Marjorie Morningstar the day after she saw Wally.
I understood from something you wrote in the acknowledgments that Lady in the Lake went a way you didn’t predict. Are you frustrated or delighted by that kind of thing? Both?
I never expected to write a newspaper novel; it held no interest for me. But it made sense for Maddie, who’s obsessed with making her mark on the world. It seemed credible that she could, with some effort, write her way onto the newspaper. I don’t mind when my books change course—I think it’s a sign that I’m paying attention, following the internal logic of characters I created.
Was the plan always to write a 1960s book? What is it about 1965-68 you wanted to explore?
I thought the governor’s race of 1966 was a great opportunity—it was similar to 2016 in some really interesting ways. But then I just fell in love with the idea of 1966. We tend to think of ’68 and ’69 as being the big pivotal years. Also, ’63, because of the Kennedy assassination. But ’66 was laying the groundwork. I learned that ’66 was the year that “King of the Road” and “Satisfaction” were both number-one singles in the U.S.–that’s ’66 in a nutshell.
I loved the way the story is told through a variety of voices, many of them what we would think of as minor characters. Will you talk a bit about why you chose this form, what you think it gives the reader?
It occurred to me that part of Maddie’s problem is that she misses anything that’s not directly related to her own ambition. She wants to be a reporter and she’s moving through a city with dozens, hundreds of stories, and she’s missing them all. I wanted the reader to see what Maddie was missing, to realize what her ambition was costing her.
One of your main characters is a woman of color, and you’ve talked about trying to represent that well without appropriating anyone’s culture. What have you learned during this process?
I lost patience with the “I’m a writer of fiction so I get to write whatever I want” line of argument. I think writing across one’s own identity is a case of “In dreams begin responsibility.” Writing about other people, people different from one’s self, is a huge responsibility. I am watching the third season of Stranger Things. There are very few people of color in Hawkins, Indians. Obviously, one is Lucas, a well-drawn character. This season introduces a sassy African-American girl, who turns out to be a major nerd. But there’s also a small part, a nurse, that’s equally “sassy” and I’m like—why? What’s the point? Have you really thought about what it’s like to be black in Hawkins, Indiana, in the 1980s?
This novel began with a race-based observation: An 11-year-old white girl was murdered in 1969 and I followed that story in the paper as a morbid 10-year-old. That same year, a woman’s body was found in the fountain at the lake in a big city park—and I never knew about it until I joined the newspaper 20 years later. Racial issues are always front and center in Baltimore. Part of the reason for this book’s vast cast is to show that there is no singular black, white, Jewish, female, male experience.
I did my best. Maybe it wasn’t good enough. I’ll be open to that criticism, open to learning from it. But I hope, at the least, that I wrote a book that makes it clear that Cleo matters.
I loved your last book, Sunburn, too, and I remember that you said it was a sort of response novel to a James Cain novel. I’m pretty sure you said something similar about Lady in the Lake. Can you talk about what you mean—who are you in conversation with, and why?
I’m in conversation with our genre—does that make sense? What can it do? What could it do better? How do I get better? Probably the most influential book I’ve read in the past year, in terms of craft, is Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers. I feel as if there’s not a line of exposition in that book. We are immersed into a world—two worlds—and given credit for being able to put it all together.
There’s no limit on what a crime novel can do. On what I can do, sure. I actually worry that the crime novel is getting a little too respectable for its own good. We need to hold onto outsider status. We’re at our best when we’re scrappy.
Lady in the Lake
By Laura Lippman
Published July 23, 2019
Laura Lippman in the author of several novels, the latest of which is Lady in the Lake. 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.