By Clea Simon
This fine novel is portrait of Baltimore as a city at war with itself.
Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman. William Morrow, 352 pages, $18.
When President Trump wanted to take down Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D- MD) last week, he did so by deriding Baltimore, which is in Cummings’ majority-black district, as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” In the days since then, the debate has moved onto the prejudice (or lack thereof) behind those tweets, using their veracity (or lack thereof) as evidence. The truth of course, is more complicated than any 140 (or 280) character volley can encapsulate.
To understand the complex tapestry of race and poverty in Baltimore – as in any American city – it helps to look at its roots. Luckily, a Baltimore writer has done just that, with an improbably well-timed release that, while fictional, may do a better job of illuminating the multifaceted Maryland metropolis’s story than either the angry outbursts or the reactions they provoke.
In her new novel, Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman, a former Baltimore Sun reporter and longtime resident of Charm City, presents her more nuanced take on the city’s urban problems by taking us back to the 1960s, when Baltimore, like so much of America, appeared to be on the cusp of change. Lippman writes crime fiction – mysteries – and her new book centers on the murder of an African-American woman in Baltimore and the white Jewish divorcée who investigates it. Along the way, it portrays a city in transition, when racist Jim Crow laws are still restricting lives, even as a rising African-American middle class begins to assume political power.
Lippman has said in interviews that the real-life 1969 disappearance of Shirley Parke was one inspiration for her fictional victim, Cleo Sherwood. Little is known about Parker, whose body (like the fictional Cleo’s) was found in a fountain in the city’s Druid Hill Park, hence the “lady in the lake.” That is part of the point. As happened with the real-life victim, the discovery of Cleo is largely ignored. Although fledgling journalist Maddie Schwartz is struggling to build a career, her attempts at selling her editors on a story about the body are stymied. A dead African-American woman is not news in 1966, when the book is set, because black lives do not matter.
Maddie, who had previously stumbled into a story about a dead white child, a case given much greater play, is not a social reformer. Driven in large part by her ambition, she is desperate for a story. However, as she becomes more involved in uncovering what happened to Cleo, she begins to see their kinship. Both were independent, sexually assertive women trying to forge lives outside strict gender and racial roles. When Maddy begins an affair with an African-American police officer, which is illegal in Maryland at that point, these issues start to become real for her. One of the book’s most poignant moments is when she and Ferdie attend an Orioles game. Pretending to be strangers, they sit next to each other and chat casually, afraid to touch in public.
However, this is Cleo’s story as much as Maddie’s, and Lippman, who has written about her own blindspots in researching and voicing African American characters, alternates their narratives with 18 others. (Real-life characters, like Violet Wilson Whyte, Baltimore’s first African American police officer, and the Oriole outfielder Paul Blair get chapters.) Together they form a portrait of Baltimore as a city at war with itself. Ferdie, for example, dreams of becoming a detective, a dream that changes by the end of the book might make possible – except that other strictures, like the rule keeping African-American police from using patrol cars, trip him up. A local businessman seeks political power, only he must do so by becoming part of the machine that has consolidated control for decades. Progress can, and will, be made, but individuals will be crushed in the process. That fallout is part of what Baltimore – what we all – must deal with now, with 20 characters saying more than 280 ever could.
Clea Simon’s most recent novel is A Spell of Murder. She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.