Mystery fiction is full of amateur detectives. They’re a great vehicle for cozy mysteries, or for mysteries where the police aren’t interested for whatever reason. What annoys me about a lot of them is that these amateurs are often too good at their adopted profession. Either that or they’re graced with extraordinary good luck when it comes to getting information or stumbling onto clues. Laura Lippman’s Lady in the Lake features an amateur detective who, for once, bungles and slips up and makes terrible mistakes. Nothing in this book goes as expected. This novel’s constant defiance of expectation makes it stand head and shoulders above the crowd of amateur detective mysteries.
Baltimore in 1966 offers few opportunities for a woman to reinvent herself. Maddie Schwartz has been married to her husband for almost twenty years, living the ideal life of an upper middle class Jewish woman. The house is kosher. Everything runs on time. Everyone seems satisfied…except for Maddie. She has had enough of her unfulfilling life in the suburbs and separates from her husband. Maddie doesn’t know exactly what she’s going to do, at first. She finds an apartment in a not-great area of the city before she meets a very amorous African American police officer who not only helps her get set up as a single woman, but becomes her lover and connection to the Baltimore police department.
Two disappearances turn Lady in the Lake into a mystery. First, the one hinted at by the ghostly interstitial interruptions of Cleo Sherwood, becomes the main plot of the book. The second, the surprising murder of a young Jewish girl is the catalyst that helps Maddie find her new path in life as a journalist. After Maddie and an acquaintance find the body of Tessie Fine, Maddie takes it upon herself to write to her accused murderer. This leads her to a trial position at The Star. Until a body is found in one of the city’s fountains—and even after—Maddie is marginalized. Still, she keeps making opportunities for herself by investigating the death of the woman in the fountain, a death that no one seems particularly interested in because the victim is African American.
We don’t spend all of our time following Maddie around as she makes serious mistakes with her questions. For the first two-thirds of Lady in the Lake, every other chapter is told from the first-person perspective of the people Maddie meets, from a very self-satisfied prom date, to a murderer, to a man who goes to movies to put his hands on women’s knees. Many of these chapters are unpleasant. After reading them and how willing people are to take advantage of others makes me glad that I can’t read others’ thoughts. If nothing else, though, these chapters serve as a reminder that everyone has their own agenda and that our own adventures lead us to bump into a lot of those agendas every day.
Lady in the Lake is going to linger with me for a long time. Usually when I finish a mystery, I quickly move on to the book and the next puzzle. But because of the consequences of Maddie’s attempt to be an investigator and the very surprising ending, I’m left wondering if the cost of being a journalist or escaping Baltimore are too high. When is it best to stay quiet and live with the guilt or come clean and blow everything to hell again? Questions like these also mean that Lady in the Lake would be a great choice for a book club to take on. Even readers who aren’t a member of a book club should pick this one up for its genre-defying structure, characters, and conclusion.
I can’t remember who recommended Lady in the Lake to me. Sorry about that! And thank you!