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Laura Lippman's 'Lady in the Lake' a compelling Baltimore crime story

In a lake in a city park, a woman's decomposing body is found inside a fountain. Sounds like a sensational mystery — but in Baltimore in 1966, the city's newspapers barely cover it, because the victim is black.

One reporter can't let the story go, chasing tips and badgering editors who just roll their eyes, because the reporter is a woman.

The fates of those two women are the core of Lady in the Lake, the terrific new novel by Laura Lippman.

Bay area readers may be familiar with Lippman through her annual role at the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College, where she's a longtime faculty member and appears at public readings. This is her 23rd novel, after a dozen in the Tess Monaghan mystery series and 10 standalone thrillers.

Lippman's 2018 novel, Sunburn, was a swift, compact noir story in the James Cain mode, with a small cast of characters and a weary timelessness to its setting.

Lady in the Lake takes the opposite tack. Firmly set in Lippman's hometown of Baltimore in the mid-1960s, it's told from the points of view of multiple characters and weaves in the rapid cultural changes in America taking place in that era. It's a crime novel, but it's the crime novel as social history, tackling big issues along with intimate violence.

The book's main character is 37-year-old Maddie Schwartz. The story begins with her walking out on her prosperous husband, teenage son, handsome home and secure place in the city's Jewish community for — well, she's not sure what, but she wants a different life.

Waiting for her divorce to become final, she rents a small apartment in a neighborhood that's "decidedly mixed. Mixed on its way to being not so mixed," as white flight to the suburbs surrenders urban neighborhoods to black residents. Soon, Maddie has changed her look — shorter skirts and ironed hair — and embarked on a secret affair with a black police officer, Ferdie Platt.

But it's crime that leads her to a new career. An 11-year-old girl, last seen in a pet store near her home, disappears. Police and volunteers scour the city for Tessie Fine, but Maddie, on a hunch, finds the murdered child's body.

Intrigued when a columnist from one of the local newspapers shows up to interview her, Maddie figures out a way to get a foot in the newsroom door herself, and a fierce ambition she never knew she had grips her.

Hired to assist the paper's Helpline writer, she toils through responding to stacks of letters about petty annoyances. Then one, a complaint about malfunctioning lights on a fountain in the city's Druid Hill Park, leads to a shocking discovery: the corpse of Cleo Sherwood, a young black woman who has been missing for months. How did she get inside the fountain, who put her there, and why? Maddie is sure she has found a story that will be the ticket to her heart's desire: a reporter's job.

Before she was a novelist, Lippman was a newspaper reporter, as was her father before her. (Both murders in the book are based on real Baltimore cases from the '60s.) Lady in the Lake is set during her father's era, and Lippman nails the details when she paints the newsroom of the fictional Baltimore Star, from the smoky air, clattering typewriters and liquorous lunches to the casual, pervasive racism and sexism.

Maddie tells a friendly colleague she hopes to become a reporter, and he thinks he's being helpful when he says, "Oh, Maddie, newspaper work coarsens women. You should see the battle-axe who covers labor." And, try as she might, she can't convince her editors that the mysterious death of a black bartender merits a story.

But she's consumed with finding out what happened to Cleo, and to Tessie, whose killer has confessed but left tantalizing loose ends. Maddie keeps asking questions, sometimes the right ones. But other times they're the wrong questions, or very dangerous ones.

The chapters focusing on Maddie are told in third person. Between them Lippman layers short, first-person chapters about people Maddie encounters, strikingly effective portraits like the heartbreaking truth about the humor columnist's family, or the bleak inner life of a masher who puts his hand on Maddie's knee in a movie theater. Most moving is a series of chapters in the voice of Cleo, speaking directly to Maddie, her taunts and pleas and explanations unheard.

Lady in the Lake is a compelling story of a woman making her way in the world. Along the way she learns hard truths, some of them about herself. Maddie comes to believe she understands why Cleo and Tessie died, and the reader will believe those reasons, too — until Lippman knocks us all for a loop. If you'd like to see a master storyteller at work, dive into Lady in the Lake.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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