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If These 2 Titles Remind You Of Masterful Suspense Novels, They Should

Talk about chutzpah. Two female mystery writers have just helped themselves to the titles of two novels written by canonical male authors, without even a please or a thank you.

Laura Lippman's new suspense novel is called Lady in the Lake, a pretty straightforward purloining of the title of Raymond Chandler's fourth Philip Marlowe novel. And that's not Lippman's only act of appropriation. Her novel, which is set in Baltimore in 1966, primarily focuses on the murder of Cleo Sherwood, a beautiful young black woman whose body is discovered in the fountain of a lake in a Baltimore park. In classic noir style, Cleo is already dead when the novel begins, but hers is the voice that ominously opens this story:

Lippman has already weighed in in interviews and articles about her controversial decision as a white writer to adopt the voice of a black woman as one of her main characters. For me as a reader, what's incontestable is the power that Lippman bestows on Cleo's post-mortem voice and presence. Cleo is the still center around which her living counterpart, a white Jewish woman named Maddie Schwartz, frantically orbits.

Maddie is a married 37-year-old housewife who's afflicted by what Betty Friedan immortally called "the problem that has no name." With a son soon to depart for college, Maddie yearns for a life beyond making beef casseroles. Her deliverance comes in the form of her accidental discovery of the body of another murder victim in Baltimore, this one a white girl. Maddie parlays her insider knowledge of the case into a job at the Baltimore afternoon newspaper. Before her clueless husband can object, Maddie has demanded a divorce, sold her engagement ring, and, thanks to "white flight," found a cheap apartment in a downtown Baltimore neighborhood.

Chandler's The Lady in the Lake was a middlin' novel; but Lippman's is a stunner, one that not only gives voice to that murdered "lady in the lake," but to a diverse crowd of Baltimoreans: Narrators include a jewelry store clerk, a beat cop and a player for the Baltimore Orioles. And, as much as this is an atmospheric suspense story based on two true-crime cases, it's also a compelling female adventure tale of Maddie, at mid-life, coming into her own amidst a rich historical depiction of 1960s Baltimore: its music, newspapers, candy stores and changing neighborhoods.

Ruth Ware's The Death of Mrs. Westaway is a tough act to follow: It was one of the best mysteries I read in 2018. But Ware sets expectations even higher for the novel she's just published by burdening it with a brazen title: The Turn of the Key, evoking Henry James' masterpiece of terror and ambiguity, The Turn of the Screw.

No worries. Ware slyly sets her tale of the haunting of a governess and her difficult young charges in an old mansion that's been renovated into a "smart house," complete with a sinister assortment of blinking surveillance cameras and talking refrigerators. It's a toss-up as to whether the alleged ghosts or those gadgets are responsible for shattering our poor heroine's nerves.

We readers know that 27-year-old governess Rowan Caine is a broken woman from the opening of this novel when we meet her in prison. Rowan has been charged with the murder of one of the four children who'd been under her care. Another thing we readers know from the get-go is that Rowan is not quite leveling with us. Like James' governess, who's one of literature's most unreliable narrators, Rowan is vague, particularly about her reasons for pursuing this isolated job in the Scottish Highlands.

Ware is a master of atmosphere and, here, the off-kilter weirdness of the old house itself seeps into every crack of this story. Rowan's mostly absent employers have torn the house asunder: In one half, they've restored the Victorian details; in the other, they've constructed a modernist "glass vault," which Rowan says has the effect of "exposing all the house's insides. Like a patient who looked well enough above their clothes, but lift their shirt and you would find their wounds had been left unstitched, bleeding out."

Get out of there! we jumpy readers find ourselves urging, but Rowan stays put for reasons we won't understand until the final breathless twist of this thriller.

Book titles aren't protected under copyright law, but if you're going to lift titles by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Henry James, you'd better bring your "A" game. Fortunately, it seems that Lippman and Ware don't know how to play or write any other way.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.