Though Laura Lippman’s newest novel is not the first book I started in 2020, it is the first I finished, thanks to a four-hour plane ride and a pile of newly downloaded library books on my Kindle. I am a fan of Lippman’s—have been ever since I read the first Tess Monaghan book—Baltimore Blues. There is a Tess connection here but you’ll have to wait until the end of the book to discover it.
The backbone of this novel is the story of Maddie Schwartz who seems on track to live a perfectly ordinary upper-class Jewish life in 1960’s Baltimore. She has married Milton Schwartz (who is both rich and reliable), birthed and raised a son, and manages her household with ease. Yet, something isn’t quite right and Maddie makes a fateful decision not long after she hosts a dinner for her husband that involves a classmate she knew from high school—a nerdy kid who is now a local newscaster.
A couple months after this dinner, Maddie has left her husband and her son (who refuses to come live with her) and rented an apartment in a less desirable part of town (read – not so many white people.) She is trying to figure out what her next move is, while also trying to figure out how to support herself. She meets Ferdie Platt, a black patrolman, under not so honest circumstances (she pretends that her engagement ring is stolen so she can collect the insurance money) and soon they are having an affair that both must keep secret for a number of reasons (this is before the 1967 Loving decision).
However, their relationship is just one strand in a complicated plot that involves the murders of two people—an 11-year-old girl, Tessie Fine, from an Orthodox Jewish family, and Cleo Sherwood, a young African American woman—one that receives a lot of media attention and one that doesn’t. Maddie is drawn to both cases—partly because she is the one who finds Tessie’s body (her new friend, Judith Weinstein recruits her to help in the search) and partly because she finds herself identifying with Chloe’s struggles to make something of herself. This is all tangled up in Maddie’s growing desire to be a journalist as she takes on a job in the newsroom of the Star, assisting the man who staffs the Mr. Helpline column and is constantly underestimated by those around her.
Lippman not only follows Maddie’s story here but frequently branches out briefly into the minds of those people she comes into contact with—both directly and indirectly. Woven throughout is the voice of Chloe, commenting on Maddie and her search from beyond the grave. Thanks to Lippman’s writing, I will not be forgetting either woman any time soon.