Laura Lippman is the author of "Lady in the Lake"...

Laura Lippman is the author of "Lady in the Lake" (William Morrow) Credit: Lesley Unruh

LADY IN THE LAKE by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, 352 pp., $26.99)

Gorgeous, polished Maddie Schwartz is the perfect 1960s wife and mother — until she blows up her life in “Lady in the Lake,” the new stand-alone mystery from Laura Lippman. Maddie, 37, ditches her upper-class family, moves to downtown Baltimore and sets her sights on becoming a newspaper reporter.

No one else, absolutely no one, thinks this is a good idea. She’s too old, has no experience and, most importantly, isn’t supposed to upset the social order.

But Maddie is driven to make her own path. “She wanted to matter. She wanted the world to be different because she had been born. Being Seth’s mother wasn’t enough.”

Apart from an absolute faith in herself, she has something going for her: encountering two dead bodies. The first is that of a missing 11-year-old girl whose corpse she finds. The second is a young African American club hostess, fished from a fountain and dubbed the Lady in the Lake, who haunts Maddie in these pages. 

Maddie’s intersection with both cases — sometimes clumsy, sometimes clever — gets her in the side door of the evening newspaper. Lippman, a former reporter whose father was also a newspaper writer, deftly evokes the personalities and power dynamics of a midcentury newsroom.

She even takes us inside the heads of some of the colorful newspaper characters. The unambitious cop reporter has a hidden reason for his choices; the beloved, folksy columnist has secrets of his own. 

In a bold move, there are almost two dozen voices in the book, often addressing the reader in short, confessional chapters — think reality TV contestants speaking directly to the camera. It provides insight into the private lives of people who may make only one appearance in the narrative; everyone has secrets.

And this crowd is diverse, providing a window into the shifting power relationships, in neighborhoods and politics, between a white establishment and the Jewish and African American communities in Baltimore in the 1960s. We hear from a local television host and a waitress, from the pious wife of an African American entrepreneur and a young Jewish woman trying to get out from under her mother’s thumb. 

The most frequent voice is Cleo, the victim, the Lady in the Lake. We eavesdrop as she addresses Maddie — who can’t hear her — urging her to better understand the mystery she is trying to unravel.

In her role as a novice reporter, Maddie crosses lines between cultures and communities, sometimes without a clue. She marches into an African American night club where she is not welcome without an escort, and takes her time leaving. 

And she’s having a love affair with Ferdie, an African American police officer. Their relationship is conducted entirely in private, and it’s quite steamy. Maddie is swept away by its physicality. From beyond, Cleo observes, “Choosing the men you sleep with based on your own pleasure is what makes a woman really rich.” 

What appears to be freedom to the ghostly Cleo has real-life limits. Maddie and Ferdie have one thrilling date in which they pretend to be strangers with adjacent tickets to a Baltimore Orioles baseball game. It’s the only way they figure out how to be together in public.

This may be due to weaknesses on Maddie’s part; she’s not a perfect person. She is headstrong and self-centered and, as one man notes, she is “pushing forty” with “nothing to look forward to.” That’s exactly what makes Maddie a riveting character; she’s reveling in her own unexpected power — to make choices, delight in her sexy boyfriend and launch a new career, writing and solving mysteries. 

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