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Race, Class And The News In Baltimore: Laura Lippman's 'Lady In The Lake'

Author Laura Lippman. (Lesley Unruh/Harper Collins)
Author Laura Lippman. (Lesley Unruh/Harper Collins)

With David Folkenflik

Bestselling crime novelist Laura Lippman discusses her new novel, and her city: Baltimore.


Laura Lippman, journalist and one of the country’s most successful crime novelists. Author of “Lady in the Lake.” (@LauraMLippman)

From The Reading List

Excerpt from “Lady in the Lake” by Laura Lippman

I saw you once. I saw you and you noticed me because you caught me looking at you, seeing you. Back and forth, back and forth. Good-looking women do that. Lock eyes, then look one another up and down. I could tell at a glance you’ve never doubted you’re good-looking and you still had the habit of checking a room to make sure you were the best-looking. You scanned the crowd of people on the sidewalk and your eyes caught mine, if only for a moment, then dropped away. You saw me, you tallied up the points. Who won? My hunch is that you gave yourself the crown because you saw a Negro woman, a poor one at that. In the animal kingdom, the male performs for the woman, woos her with his beautiful feathers or flowing mane, is always trying to out-strut the other men. Why do humans do it the other way? It doesn’t make sense. Men need us more than we need them.

You were in the minority that day, you were in our neighborhood and almost everyone else there would have picked me. Younger, taller, shapelier me. Maybe even your husband, Milton. Part of the reason I first noticed you was because you were next to him. He now looked exactly like his father, a man I remembered with some affection. I can’t say the same about Milton. I guessed, from the way people gathered around him on the temple steps, patted his back, clasped his hands in theirs, that it must have been his father who had died. And I could tell from the way that people waited to comfort him that Milton was a big shot.

The temple was a block from the park. The park and the lake and the fountain. Isn’t that interesting? I was probably taking a roundabout way to Druid Hill that afternoon, a book in my purse. Not that I liked the outdoors that much, but there were eight people—my father and mother, my sister and two brothers, my two boys and me—living in our apartment and there was never a moment’s peace, to use my father’s phrase. I would slip a book into my purse—Jean Plaidy or Victoria Holt—and say, “I’m going to the library,” and Mama didn’t have the heart to say no. She never faulted me for picking two good-for-nothing men and turning up back home like a bad penny. I was her first and I was her favorite. But not so favored that I could get away with a third mistake. Mama was on me to go back to school, become a nurse. A nurse. I couldn’t imagine taking a job where you had to touch people you didn’t want to touch.

When things got too much at home, when there were too many bodies and voices, I’d go to the park and walk the paths, drink up the silence, drop to a bench, and lose myself in ye olden days of England. Later, people said I was a terrible person, moving out on my own, leaving my babies behind with their grandparents, but I was thinking of them. I needed a man, and not just any old man. My boys’ fathers had proved that much to me. I had to find the kind of man who would

provide for us, all of us. To do that, I needed to be on my own for a little while, even if it meant living with my friend Latetia, who basically ran a one-woman school on how to get men to pay for everything. My mama believed that when you put the cheese out for the mouse, you have to make it look at least a little appetizing. Cut the mold off or place it in the trap so the mold is on the side that doesn’t show. I had to look good and I had to look as if I didn’t have a care in the world,

and I couldn’t manage that in my family’s crowded apartment on Auchentoroly Terrace.

Okay, so maybe I could imagine taking a job where you had to touch people you didn’t want to touch.

But what woman doesn’t do that? You did it yourself, I’m guessing, when you married Milton Schwartz. Because no one could fall in fairy-tale love with the Milton Schwartz I once knew.

It was—I can remember if I figure out how old my babies were—1964, late fall, the faintest chill in the air. You had a plain black pillbox hat, no veil. I bet people told you that you looked like Jackie Kennedy. I bet you liked it, even as you denied it with a Who, me? laugh. The wind ruffled your hair, but only a little; you had that ’do shellacked. You wore a black coat with fur at the throat and cuffs. Believe me, I remember that coat. And, boy, Milton looked so much like his father and it was only then that I realized that old Mr. Schwartz had been kinda young and kinda handsome when I was a kid. When I was a little girl, buying candy in his store, I thought he was old. He wasn’t even forty. Now I was twenty-six and Milton had to be almost forty and there you were next to him, and I could not get over what a fine woman he had gotten for himself. Maybe he was nicer now, I thought. People change, they do, they do. I did. It’s just that no one will ever know.

What did you see? I can’t remember what I was wearing, but I can guess. A coat, too thin even for that mild day. Probably came from a church box, so it was pilled and limp, saggy at the hem. Scuffed shoes, run-down heels. Your shoes were black and shiny. My legs were bare. You had the kind of stockings that almost shimmered.

Looking at you, I saw the trick to it: to get a man with money, I would need to look as if I didn’t need money. I was going to have to find a job in a place where the tips came in folding money, not change thrown on the table. Problem was, those kinds of places didn’t hire Negroes, not as waitresses. The one time I got a restaurant gig, I was a dishwasher, stuck in the back, cut off from the tips. The best restaurants didn’t hire women to wait tables even if they were white.

I was going to have to be creative, find a job somewhere that I could meet the kind of men who bought a girl things, which would make me more desirable to the men who played for bigger stakes, allow me to trade up and up and up. I knew what that meant, what I would have to exchange for those things. I wasn’t a girl anymore. I had two sons to prove it.

So when you saw me—and you did, I’m sure of it, our eyes caught, held one another’s—you saw my ratty clothes, but you also saw my green eyes, my straight nose. The face that gave me my nickname, although later I would meet a man who said I reminded him of a duchess, not an empress, that I should be called Helen. He said it was because I was beautiful enough to start a war. And didn’t I just? I don’t know what else you would call it. Maybe not a big war, but a war all the same, in which men turned on one another, allies became enemies. All because of me.

In a flash, you showed me where I wanted to go and how to get there. I had one more chance. One more man.

I did not imagine that day that our paths would ever cross again, small as Baltimore can be. You were just the woman who married the nasty teenager who used to torment me, and now the nasty boy was a nice-looking man who was burying his father. I need a husband like that, I thought. Not a white man, of course, but a man who could buy me a coat with fur at the neck and the cuffs, a man who would command everyone’s respect. A woman is only as good as the man at her side. My father would have slapped me if he heard such words come out of my mouth, make me find and memorize all the Bible verses about vanity and pride. But it wasn’t vanity on my part. I needed a man to help care for my boys. A well-to-do man needs a beautiful woman. That’s what I figured out that day. You were there to comfort Milton, to help him bury his father, but you were also an advertisement for his work and success. I can’t believe you left him a year later, but death has a way of changing people.

God knows, my death has changed me.

Alive, I was Cleo Sherwood. Dead, I became the Lady in the Lake, a nasty broken thing, dragged from the fountain after steeping there for months, through the cold winter, then that fitful, bratty spring, almost into summer proper. Face gone, much of my flesh gone.

And no one cared until you came along, gave me that stupid nickname, began rattling doorknobs and pestering people, going places you weren’t supposed to go. No one outside my family was supposed to care. I was a careless girl who went out on a date with the wrong person and was never seen again. You came in at the end of my story and turned it into your beginning. Why’d you have to go and do that, Madeline Schwartz? Why couldn’t you stay in your beautiful house and your good-enough marriage, and let me be at the bottom of the fountain? I was safe there.

Everybody was safer when I was there.

From LADY IN THE LAKE by Laura Lippman, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2019 by Laura Lippman. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers

Washington Post: “Is it ok for a white author to write black characters? I’m trying.” — “Late last year, I was asked to participate in a reading in Baltimore, my hometown and the place where most of my 20-plus novels have been set. Although my next book was still months away from publication, I read from the first chapter, curious to see how an audience would respond to a twist at the end. People gasped gratifyingly when it turned out that the speaker was actually a ghost.

“Afterward, several audience members told me I was ‘brave’ to write the passage they had heard. The local newspaper asked for an interview. The interest came not from the introduction of a supernatural element (unusual in my rooted-to-the-ground crime fiction) but from the fact that the ghost was African American. I was literally asked if this was allowed, if I had been given ‘permission.’

“The issue of writing across racial boundaries had been very much on my mind, but I didn’t know how to answer those questions, questions not unlike ones I had asked of several African American writers earlier that year.”

NPR: “‘Cities Are Resilient,’ Says Baltimore Crime Novelist Laura Lippman” — “Count Laura Lippman among those who take issue with President Trump’s recent tweets characterizing Baltimore as a ‘disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.’ The crime novelist, who lives in Baltimore, says the president’s comments represent a ‘basic disrespect’ for city residents.

“‘Cities are resilient,’ Lippman says. ‘The fact that we survive or thrive at all in the light of terrible problems isn’t to be criticized; it’s to be celebrated.’

“Lippman is the author of the Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan detective series. Her new stand-alone crime novel, Lady in the Lake, was inspired by two real-life Baltimore disappearances in the 1960s. Lippman’s story centers on Maddie Schwartz, who leaves her marriage, gets a job at a Baltimore newspaper, and begins investigating the mysterious death of a young black woman. For Lippman, setting her novel in the past was a deliberate choice, made in the wake of the 2016 election.”

New York Times: “The Novel That Inspired Laura Lippman’s ‘Lady in the Lake’” — “Laura Lippman — whose new novel, ‘Lady in the Lake,’ enters the list at No. 13 — rereads Herman Wouk’s ‘Marjorie Morningstar’ every year, ‘and yet it was only in early 2017 that I noticed the single most irritating detail in the novel — the Marjorie we see at the end, through the eyes of the long-ago spurned Wally Wronken, is described as looking like a grandmother because of her premature gray hair, much too old for 38-year-old Wally,’ she says. ‘She’s 39! It got me to thinking about how a chance encounter with someone from our past might remind us of all the things we once aspired to be — and how it might inspire us to try again. So I was already thinking about Marjorie, and then my friend Megan Abbott posted these beautiful, eerie photos of old Jewish summer camps on social media, and although I don’t even really believe in signs, I said to myself, “That’s it, it’s a sign, my new book is going to be about a Marjorie Morningstar who revives a long dormant dream.” ‘

“That her Marjorie — a 1960s Baltimore housewife named Maddie Schwartz — ends up working as a crime reporter at a local newspaper is not exactly a surprise, given Lippman’s journalism roots. In fact, the entire novel is a love letter to the newspaper world.”

Stefano Kotsonis produced this hour for broadcast.

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