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How 2 unrelated deaths from 1969 inspired Baltimore crime novelist Laura Lippman’s ‘Lady in the Lake’

How 2 unrelated deaths from 1969 inspired Baltimore crime novelist Laura Lippman’s ‘Lady in the Lake’
The protagonist of Lippman’s newest novel ditches her doting husband and big Pikesville home to pursue a career as a newspaper reporter. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

It’s a good day to be Laura Lippman. The Baltimore crime novelist breezes into a Locust Point pub wearing a canary yellow off-the-shoulder dress from Rent the Runway that she likes so much she thinks she might buy. She’s smiling, glowing even. An important review has just come in, the most important review.

Stephen King has written in The New York Times that her latest novel, “Lady in the Lake,” is “special, even extraordinary.” Lippman heard the news while she was sitting in traffic waving off a squeegee kid. Her publisher, William Morrow, has just announced a five-book deal, including a collection of personal essays.

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This morning, she and her 9-year-old daughter walked into the girl’s summer camp singing “You gotta have a gimmick,” from the musical “Gypsy.” Soon, the two will head to Italy for vacation after Lippman is done teaching at a conference there. (Husband and ‘Wire’ creator David Simon has to work.)

She orders a glass of chardonnay and some appetizers.

It’s a good day to be Laura Lippman.

Then again, it was good to be Maddie Schwartz.

At least, it looked that way to the outside world. The protagonist of Lippman’s newest novel, published July 23, ditches her doting husband and big Pikesville home to pursue a career as a newspaper reporter. She becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery of two separate killings: 11-year-old Tessie Fine and a bartender named Cleo Sherwood.

It’s the mid 1960s. Times are changing, and so is Maddie. She takes a black cop as a lover, straightens her hair and moves into an apartment off Cathedral Street. Meanwhile, whites are leaving Northwest Baltimore in droves, heading for the whiter suburbs. The novel, which flips between Maddie’s perspective and people she interacts with, brings to life a Baltimore that’s been largely abandoned and demolished, from the tea room at Haussner’s to Maison Marconi, a spot Maddie chooses to meet her ex-husband for dinner. (The bright lighting, she thought, would ensure he doesn’t see it as a date.)

Being a reporter allows Maddie to step outside the rigid confines of life for women at the time. “Normally I wouldn’t tell such stories to a lady, but you’re a reporter,” The Star’s veteran police reporter John Diller, “more cop than reporter,” tells her as he details the tactics of a local serial killer. Still, she wrestles with a culture that sees her as past her prime in her late 30s.

The two deaths that anchor “Lady in the Lake” are inspired by real events that happened in 1969, when Lippman herself was a 10-year-old living in Dickeyville. One was the abduction and killing of 11-year-old Esther Lebowitz, bludgeoned to death in the basement of a store selling tropical fish. Lebowitz’s death traumatized the city’s Jewish community for years to come. Another death barely made a ripple in white Baltimore, though it was covered extensively in The Baltimore Afro-American. Shirley Lee Widgeon Parker, a beautiful barmaid and former Urban League secretary, vanished in April. Her body was found in the fountain of Druid Hill Lake. Decades later, her death remains a mystery.

Lippman only heard about Parker’s death after arriving at The Baltimore Sun years later. Why?

In the novel, Maddie’s editors at The Star are pleased by her reporting on the death of an 11-year-old, but scold her for spending too much time pursuing the death of a black woman.

The Star is not stand-in for The Sun, Lippman says, but there are coincidences. The tough-talking labor reporter, nicknamed the “battle axe,” who writes her copy in the women’s bathroom while smoking cigarettes, was inspired by the late Helen Delich Bentley. Aspects were informed by the life of Lippman’s father, who joined The Sun in 1965 and interviews with his colleagues.

“Everything is factual except for what isn’t,” Lippman said.

The book is dedicated to the five victims of last year’s Capital Gazette shooting, which took place the day after Lippman had submitted the first draft of “Lady in the Lake.” Among the dead, Lippman’s friend, Rob Hiaasen, with whom she had worked as a reporter at The Sun. They found a common bond in their love for writing stories about the kind of people that no one else wanted to write stories about.

“Rob had so much more to say and do,” she said, brushing away tears.

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As a reporter, Maddie myopically ignores the small stories and side characters, chasing the bigger scoops that will furnish a front-page byline.

“Maddie in many ways represents a person I fear I will become,” Lippman said. “She is so heedless in her ambition. ... She causes a lot of damage.” But Lippman, however ambitious, is quick to point out the differences between herself and the character. Maddie is stunningly beautiful, Jewish, married by age 20 to a successful lawyer. “Not me,” Lippman said.

Lippman’s own last year as a reporter was miserable. Mid-divorce and locked in a dispute with Sun management, she was so stressed out one day that she cracked two molars and spat them out in her hand.

It’s a memory she recalls in a piece titled “Game of Crones,” to be reprinted in the forthcoming collection of personal essays. In it, she reflects on the unexpected joys of becoming a mom late in life, despite being frequently mistaken for her child’s grandmother. The essay begins: “My daughter was 10 days old the first time I was asked if I were her grandmother.”

In a phone interview days after our initial meeting in Locust Point, Lippman admits that in her embrace of domestic life, “I’m kind of the anti-Maddie. ... I derive a lot of satisfaction from my life as a parent. I like making dinner. I like looking after my kid.”

And then she begged off, saying it was time to figure out what to do for supper, before she toted her daughter to a book signing.

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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