Interspersed with Maddie’s story are a chorus of voices straight out of “Our Town,” most of them unhappy. Don Heath fears he’s suffering from dementia. The newscaster Wally Wright (actually Weiss) still carries a torch — and a resentment — for Maddie, whom he once dated in high school. The political fixer and the nightclub owner are unhappily closeted gay men, so-called “Baltimore bachelors.” The only optimistic voice we hear is that of the legendary Baltimore Orioles outfielder Paul Blair, and he seems unnecessary here from a narrative perspective (so, for that matter, does the masher who fondles Maddie’s knee during a movie). Even Cleo Sherwood speaks from beyond the grave, sort of like Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard,” another murdered floater. That parallel may or may not have been intended.
It’s the Lady in the Lake who opens the story, in fact, and it’s Cleo’s ambivalence about her place in what James Brown called a man’s, man’s, man’s world that sets the tone of this angry but craftily crafted book. “Men need us more than we need them,” Cleo says on the first page, but almost immediately contradicts herself: “A woman is only as good as the man at her side.”
Maddie, victimized by a much older man while still in her teens, is similarly conflicted; although Cleo is black and Maddie is a white middle-class Jew, they are eerily alike. Maddie uses her looks to flirt her way into the newspaper business, but must keep her actual (and very powerful) sex drive carefully hidden, even after she leaves her husband and son, which she does with coldblooded calculation. Lippman walks a fine line, balancing a cracking good mystery with the story of a not always admirable woman working to stand on her own. Lippman never loses sight of Maddie’s options and her obstacles. Both turn out to be men.
“Women … learned early to surrender any idea that life was a series of fair exchanges,” Maddie thinks. “A girl discovered almost in the cradle that things would never be fair.” Maybe not, but Cleo, the Lady in the Lake, sees another side, pointing out that the source of both of Maddie’s scoops was a man: “Wasn’t it, Maddie Schwartz? A woman like you — there’s always going to be a man.”
Although Lippman’s heart clearly rests with Maddie and her struggle to become more than just Mrs. Milton Schwartz, and although she gives a splendid picture of the newspaper business in an era when newspapers mattered a lot more than they do today, she never loses touch with the twin mysteries at the center of her story. We care about Maddie, sure, but we also want to know who helped Tessie Fine’s killer move Tessie’s body from the place where she was murdered. And as for the murder of Cleo Sherwood? Apologies to Mr. Wilson, but we care quite a bit. Lippman answers all outstanding questions with a totally cool double twist that your reviewer — a veteran reader of mysteries — never saw coming.
There are even glints of humor, a trick Ruth Rendell rarely managed. When Maddie asks a bartender which Baltimore paper he prefers, he tells her he likes The Beacon. “It’s the thickest,” he says, “and I’ve got a parakeet.”