I wasn’t surprised to learn, halfway through Lady in the Lake, that it was being developed into a television series. Like Little Fires Everywhere, The Undoing, and most recently Mare of Easttown, Lady in the Lake weds mystery-solving with female midlife crises (“midlife crisis” defined generously–here the protagonist is under forty and still attractive, as readers are repeatedly reminded). The novel revolves around two women in 1960s Baltimore: Madeline Schwartz, a housewife who leaves her family to rediscover herself, and Cleo Sherwood, the murdered “lady in the lake.” Told she is too old to start a career in journalism, Maddie inserts herself into two police investigations (with the help of the police officer she is seeing) as a means of getting her foot in the door, and her pursuit of Cleo’s killer drives the plot.
Lippman primarily uses Maddie’s perspective, but the novel breaks up her narration with chapters from the points of view of other characters. These are all one-offs except for Cleo’s short “interstitials,” in which she follows her own murder investigation from (presumably) a spiritual realm. At times these character insights are striking, such as when Maddie attempts to explain to her son, Seth, why she left her husband and Seth’s father. Maddie hopes that, at eighteen years old and leaving soon for college, Seth will understand her decision, but he is uninterested in her ambition: “It was folly to expect a child to care about a parent’s dreams and desires,” Maddie muses. Later, in a chapter narrated by a man, he notes that once his sister “hooks a guy” he thinks “she’ll be more like our mother, trying to control everything, which is the obvious way to be when you control nothing.”
But more often that not these chapters are not as revelatory or interesting as I wanted them to be. Maddie Schwartz knows she is smart and attractive, attributes reinforced in the narration of almost every man in the novel when they meet her (the novel’s obsession with Maddie’s continued sex appeal despite being 37 is bizarre, even for the era). We never hear from Seth, Milton (her ex-husband) or Ferdie (her police-officer boyfriend)–because they would depict her (fairly or not) as selfish, two-faced, and conniving? Only Cleo seems to push back against Maddie’s purpose and mission. It is never quite clear how much Maddie is driven by the desire to seek justice for Cleo, whose murder has been under-investigated because she is African American and was rumored to engage in sex work, vs. being driven by her desire to make a name for herself. This tension could be interesting to explore, especially with the true crime boom and the ethical complexities of murder-as-entertainment, but the novel doesn’t get there–perhaps the TV series will.