Author of the Month

Name: Laura Lippman

First Novel: Baltimore Blues

Most Recent Book: Lady in the Lake

'...head and shoulders above anything I have recently read. '

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 1966 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.

It is very rare that a book literally ensnares one within the first sentence – but this is how Lippman lured me in to her latest, ‘Lady in the Lake’. Her writing is so sublime and hypnotic that I could not help but read on. The voice of Cleo Sherwood leaps off the page, the mystery of her disappearance subtly urging you to become further involved with this vast cast of characters.

As if reading the script of an arthouse movie, Lippman introduces her main characters, but also gives voice to cameos like The Waitress, The Battle-Ax (I don’t know if Lippman did this deliberately but I had an image of Patricia Highsmith in this role!) and the Negro policewoman, Lady Law (which in turn is sad, but also inspirational). None are simply plot devices, but voices in their own right who have their own story to tell, ones that touch upon the circumstances surrounding Cleo Sherwood.

The catalyst for these pieces of remembrance is Maddie Schwartz, a woman who has left her influential husband, wanting more from life than just being a housewife. Wanting to be a reporter, Maddie begins her own heavy-handed intention to find the truth behind the body in the lake. Lippman perfectly shows Maddie’s introduction to a community she has had no dealings with before and is ignorant of the social codes of her new environment. Lippman perfectly portrays a woman out of her depth, but wanting to make her mark, a woman who has been shielded but now has unexpected curveballs thrown her way, especially in the form of her new and dangerous liaison with Ferdie, a black cop.

The hardest part of the book is Lippman’s portrait of subtle (and in some cases not so subtle) and casual racism. It is shocking to think of someone refusing to employ a black woman as a waitress because it would cause offence to have a Negro serve meals! As an artist builds a painting with small flourishes, Lippman layers her canvas of 1966 with small dashes of light and shade which are hugely powerful, bringing ‘Lady in the Lake’ head and shoulders above anything I have recently read.

‘Lady in the Lake’ had echoes of two of my favourite novelists: Margaret Millar and Patricia Highsmith who were both sublime at chronicling the angst of everyday living perfectly to the pages of their books. Both writers were more interested in the ‘why’ rather than the ‘who’. Lippman combines these two, but brings her own voice. ‘Lady in the Lake’ will be one of those novels I will be pushing on to other people to read. It is a sumptuous, luxurious tour de force that will transport you back and immerse you in Baltimore 1966. Lippman is a writer at her zenith and ‘Lady in the Lake’ is proof of that.

Reviewed by: C.S.

CrimeSquad Rating


1) ‘Lady in the Lake’ is set in Baltimore 1966. Why did you choose this year for this novel?
I chose 1966 because I was initially thinking I was going to write about the governor’s race in Maryland, which had startling parallels to the presidential election of 2016. That election receded into the story’s background, but ‘66 was a fascinating year. It also happens to be the year that, toward year’s end, a new police commissioner was hired and began fast-tracking the department’s integration.
2) The two cases told in ‘Lady in the Lake’ are based on true crimes. Why did you base them on these cases? Do you feel that there is more of a sense of the victim and the brutality of the crime if your reader knows the crimes in your book are embedded in fact?
The real-life cases that inspire me are often cases from my childhood. If they pique a reader’s curiosity, that’s fine, but it’s not what I’m after. I figure if a crime has stayed with me for decades, there’s something there — something thematic, something resonant.
3) Although Cleo Sherwood is very much a central character, I felt this was also about the liberation of Maddie Schwartz. Was it always Maddie’s journey to find herself as well as what happened to Cleo?
To me, Maddie’s journey is one of rueful self-knowledge, an important passage of adulthood. She realizes her youthful dreams at last, but at what cost? By the book’s end, she realizes how heedless she’s been, how careless with the lives of others.
4) Not having been around in 1966, it is always a surprise to read about it being illegal not to be able to form a relationship between different races. I also didn’t realise that there were such segregated camps if you were Jewish, Black, White, Christian, Man or Woman. You show how limited some folk were by the colour of their skin or religion. Do you think that 53 years later we have come any further forward, especially with women’s rights? Would Maddie and Cleo find life easier in 2019?
Maddie would find life a little easier. Cleo, too, I suppose, but I don’t think we can congratulate ourselves too much. In fact, in some ways, I think we’ve gone backwards. As U.S. law moved toward enshrining rights for certain classes, people became awfully clever at creating work-arounds. The thing that worries me about the U.S. right now is there’s a pretty sizable portion of the population that is glorying in racism being unmasked. They don’t mind racism at all. They just don’t want to be called racists.
5) Besides Cleo and Maddie, you give voice to many characters who only have a small part in the unfolding drama, as they add layers to events in 1966, especially Cleo’s character. Was this a difficult or easy process to make Cleo, Maddie and Baltimore itself more three-dimensional to your reader?
It was neither difficult nor easy, it was just something that had to be. Baltimore was, is, a city teeming with stories. Maddie, who wants to be a writer, misses a lot of them. I’ve taken to saying that if one wants to be a ‘human interest’ reporter, it helps to be interested in humans. By the end of the book, I think Maddie has learned to slow down, take things in. But she also knows that in some sense, she’s always writing about herself.
6) What is next for Laura Lippman?
I’ll be publishing a book of essays! Did not see that one coming. And it happened because of social media, specifically Twitter. I pitched an editor via DM and she agreed to let me write about being a very old mom. Then another editor asked me to expand a tweet into a piece. But there’s a novel due right behind the essays.
7) With your vast experience as a writer, what advice would you give to anyone attempting their first novel?
I tell writers starting out to create routines that work for them, with modest, regular goals. And to read well.
8) Are you a fan of crime fiction? Which three crime novels would you like with you if stranded on a desert island?
I’m a huge fan of crime fiction and there’s A LOT I have not read. Embarrassingly so. I would take a big compendium of Christie, lots of gaps for me there. An anthology of the short stories of Edward D. Hoch, who excelled at that form. And then I’ll cheat and take a volume of Shakespeare, but there is quite a bit of crime in the histories and tragedies.