‘Lady in the Lake’: Featured Fiction from Laura Lippman

July 23, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

In this latest installment of featured fiction—curated by our own Carolyn Quimby—we present readers with an excerpt from Laura Lippman’s latest novel, Lady in the Lake, out today from William Morrow.

In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book a “smoldering standalone,” adding that readers “will devour this sophisticated crime novel, which captures the era’s zeitgeist while painting a striking portrait of unapologetic female ambition.”

Lady in the Lake 

I saw you once. I saw you and you noticed me because you caught me looking at you, seeing you. Back and forth, back and forth. Good-looking women do that. Lock eyes, then look one another up and down. I could tell at a glance you’ve never doubted you’re good-looking and you still had the habit of checking a room to make sure you were the best-looking. You scanned the crowd of people on the sidewalk and your eyes caught mine, if only for a moment, then dropped away. You saw me, you tallied up the points. Who won? My hunch is that you gave yourself the crown because you saw a Negro woman, a poor one at that. In the animal kingdom, the male performs for the woman, woos her with his beautiful feathers or flowing mane, is always trying to out-strut the other men. Why do humans do it the other way? It doesn’t make sense. Men need us more than we need them.

You were in the minority that day, you were in our neighborhood and almost everyone else there would have picked me. Younger, taller, shapelier me. Maybe even your husband, Milton. Part of the reason I first noticed you was because you were next to him. He now looked exactly like his father, a man I remembered with some affection. I can’t say the same about Milton. I guessed, from the way people gathered around him on the temple steps, patted his back, clasped his hands in theirs, that it must have been his father who had died. And I could tell from the way that people waited to comfort him that Milton was a big shot.

The temple was a block from the park. The park and the lake and the fountain. Isn’t that interesting? I was probably taking a roundabout way to Druid Hill that afternoon, a book in my purse. Not that I liked the outdoors that much, but there were eight people—my father and mother, my sister and two brothers, my two boys and me—living in our apartment and there was never a moment’s peace, to use my father’s phrase. I would slip a book into my purse—Jean Plaidy or Victoria Holt—and say, “I’m going to the library,” and Mama didn’t have the heart to say no. She never faulted me for picking two good-for-nothing men and turning up back home like a bad penny. I was her first and I was her favorite. But not so favored that I could get away with a third mistake. Mama was on me to go back to school, become a nurse. A nurse. I couldn’t imagine taking a job where you had to touch people you didn’t want to touch.

When things got too much at home, when there were too many bodies and voices, I’d go to the park and walk the paths, drink up the silence, drop to a bench, and lose myself in ye olden days of England. Later, people said I was a terrible person, moving out on my own, leaving my babies behind with their grandparents, but I was thinking of them. I needed a man, and not just any old man. My boys’ fathers had proved that much to me. I had to find the kind of man who would

provide for us, all of us. To do that, I needed to be on my own for a little while, even if it meant living with my friend Latetia, who basically ran a one-woman school on how to get men to pay for everything. My mama believed that when you put the cheese out for the mouse, you have to make it look at least a little appetizing. Cut the mold off or place it in the trap so the mold is on the side that doesn’t show. I had to look good and I had to look as if I didn’t have a care in the world, and I couldn’t manage that in my family’s crowded apartment on Auchentoroly Terrace.

Okay, so maybe I could imagine taking a job where you had to touch people you didn’t want to touch.

But what woman doesn’t do that? You did it yourself, I’m guessing, when you married Milton Schwartz. Because no one could fall in fairy-tale love with the Milton Schwartz I once knew.

It was—I can remember if I figure out how old my babies were—1964, late fall, the faintest chill in the air. You had a plain black pillbox hat, no veil. I bet people told you that you looked like Jackie Kennedy. I bet you liked it, even as you denied it with a Who, me? laugh. The wind ruffled your hair, but only a little; you had that ’do shellacked. You wore a black coat with fur at the throat and cuffs. Believe me, I remember that coat. And, boy, Milton looked so much like his father and it was only then that I realized that old Mr. Schwartz had been kinda young and kinda handsome when I was a kid. When I was a little girl, buying candy in his store, I thought he was old. He wasn’t even forty. Now I was twenty-six and Milton had to be almost forty and there you were next to him, and I could not get over what a fine woman he had gotten for himself. Maybe he was nicer now, I thought. People change, they do, they do. I did. It’s just that no one will ever know.

What did you see? I can’t remember what I was wearing, but I can guess. A coat, too thin even for that mild day. Probably came from a church box, so it was pilled and limp, saggy at the hem. Scuffed shoes, run-down heels. Your shoes were black and shiny. My legs were bare. You had the kind of stockings that almost shimmered.

Looking at you, I saw the trick to it: to get a man with money, I would need to look as if I didn’t need money. I was going to have to find a job in a place where the tips came in folding money, not change thrown on the table. Problem was, those kinds of places didn’t hire Negroes, not as waitresses. The one time I got a restaurant gig, I was a dishwasher, stuck in the back, cut off from the tips. The best restaurants didn’t hire women to wait tables even if they were white.

I was going to have to be creative, find a job somewhere that I could meet the kind of men who bought a girl things, which would make me more desirable to the men who played for bigger stakes, allow me to trade up and up and up. I knew what that meant, what I would have to exchange for those things. I wasn’t a girl anymore. I had two sons to prove it.

So when you saw me—and you did, I’m sure of it, our eyes caught, held one another’s—you saw my ratty clothes, but you also saw my green eyes, my straight nose. The face that gave me my nickname, although later I would meet a man who said I reminded him of a duchess, not an empress, that I should be called Helen. He said it was because I was beautiful enough to start a war. And didn’t I just? I don’t know what else you would call it. Maybe not a big war, but a war all the same, in which men turned on one another, allies became enemies. All because of me.

From Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2019 by Laura Lippman. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers

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