O Baltimore! Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman

August 30, 2019 at 1:15 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I had fun reading this novel, mainly due to all the references to sixties era Baltimore, and especially to its Jewish population. Several Yiddish expressions appear in the text: shidduch (matchmaking – see Fiddler on the Roof) and shanda (a shame or a scandal) are examples. Mention is made of Chizuk Amuno Congregation, which in the time frame of the novel was getting ready to move out of the city to a new building in Baltimore County. The Gilbert branch of my family have been members of this congregation for many years.

Here’s the building:

The distinctive shape of this edifice has been likened to that of a certain marine mammal “(very like a whale,” as Hamlet would have said). This makes me think of my Uncle Hal, of blessed memory, who frequently referred to Chizuk Amuno “a whale of a schul.” (‘Schul’ or ‘shul’ denotes a synagogue, or any Jewish place of worship. Yiddish is written using the Hebrew alphabet. For more on the language, click here.)

Numerous other Baltimore streets and place names appear in this novel. One of the more curious street names is Auchentoroly Terrace. According to  the Baltimore Sun:

The word derives from an old estate, Auchentorlie, that once stood nearby. The name has a Scottish origin and refers to a flower similar to heather.

There are two Baltimore places that figure importantly in this narrative: the lake in Druid Hill Park and Cylburn Arboretum. They are directly involved in the two fatalities that are crucial to The Lady in the Lake. 

The William Wallace monument in Druid Hill Park [Click to enlarge]

There’s a nice page devoted to this park on the Park School website. This distinguished Baltimore private school also figures in Lady in the Lake.

Cylburn Arboretum [Click to enlarge]

Both of the fatalities referenced  above were inspired by actual crimes.  Lippman has used this device before, most effectively in her award winning novel from 2008, What the Dead Know.

(To read an article about the actual crimes that inform Lady in the Lake, click here.)

With regard to the plots of her novels, Lippman insists on the difference between ‘based on’ as opposed to ‘inspired by.’ She clarifies the distinction in this video:

In Lady in the Lake, Laura Lippman weaves an intriguing tale. Early on, Madeline Schwartz, the main character who’s in search of gainful employment, becomes a newspaper reporter. This is a world that Lippman knows well and she portrays it in a convincing and entertaining manner. However, I have to say that the way in which she’s chosen to structure her narrative made for a challenging reading experience. In particular, in the earlier sections, there’s a frequent switching out of first person narrators that, at least for this reader, seriously impeded the flow of the story. Some of these narrators were of only tangential importance to the tale being told. Why did we have to hear from them? I got impatient with this technique, and was relieved that as I turned the pages, these interruptions became less frequent and the narrative became more tightly focused.

At one point, Madeline – pretty much always called ‘Maddie’ – inveigles her way into the morgue in order to see the body of one of the victims. It is, predictably, a harrowing experience.

Nature was vicious. When Marilyn Monroe had died four years ago, people had said she was undone by her age, her fading looks, that she wanted to leave a  beautiful corpse. No one leaves a beautiful corpse.

I had a strange and startling experience myself while reading this novel. At one point, in the course of her independent investigation, Maddie visits a medium with a bad cold. She thinks to herself, ‘Madame Claire has a cold’ and is immediately pleased at her ability to come with this allusion to T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” At the same time, she’s frustrated because she cannot come up with the name of the clairvoyant in Eliot’s poem.

I have not sat down and read all the way through that poem in a very long time. But as soon as I read  the above passage, I whispered softly, ‘Madame Sosotris? No, Madame Sosostris.’ I quickly verified this via google. The second guess was exactly right. I had no idea that  this obscure bit of knowledge resided still in my memory, from all those years – decades- ago, when I took a graduate school seminar in the works of T.S. Eliot at Georgetown University, taught precisely and perceptively by Father Bishoff.

I don’t want to conclude without mentioning that Laura Lippman has dedicated Lady in the Lake to the memory of five of her fellow journalists at The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, who were gunned down in a mass shooting on June 28, 2018:

Rob Hiassen
Gerald Fischman
John McNamara
Rebecca Smith
Wendi Winters

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