DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends two new mystery novels by women that stake out a claim to classic suspense territory. Here's her review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Talk about chutzpah. Two female mystery writers have just helped themselves to the titles of two novels written by canonical male authors without even a please or a thank-you. Laura Lippman's new suspense novel is called "Lady In The Lake," a pretty straightforward purloining of the title of Raymond Chandler's fourth Philip Marlowe novel. And that's not Lippman's only act of appropriation. Her novel, which is set in Baltimore in 1966, primarily focuses on the murder of Cleo Sherwood, a beautiful young black woman whose body is discovered in the fountain of a lake in a Baltimore park. In classic noir style, Cleo is already dead when the novel begins. But hers is the voice that ominously opens this story.
Alive, she says, I was Cleo Sherwood. Dead, I became the Lady in the Lake, a nasty, broken thing, dragged from the fountain after steeping there for months, through the cold winter, then that fitful, bratty spring, almost into summer proper. Face gone, much of my flesh gone. I was safe there. Everybody was safer when I was there.
Lippmann has already weighed in, in interviews and articles, about her controversial decision as a white writer to adopt the voice of a black woman as one of her main characters. For me as a reader, what's incontestable is the power that Lippmann bestows on Cleo's post-mortem voice and presence. Cleo is the still center around which her living counterpart, a white Jewish woman named Maddie Schwartz, frantically orbits. Maddie is a married 37-year-old housewife who is afflicted by what Betty Friedan immortalized called the problem that has no name. With a son soon to depart for college, Maddie yearns for a life beyond making beef casseroles. Her deliverance comes in the form of her accidental discovery of the body of another murder victim in Baltimore, this one a white girl.
Maddie parlays her insider knowledge of the case into a job at the Baltimore afternoon newspaper. Before her clueless husband can object, Maddie has demanded a divorce, sold her engagement ring and, thanks to white flight, found a cheap apartment in a downtown Baltimore neighborhood.
Chandler's "The Lady In The Lake" was a middling novel, but Lippman's is a stunner, one that not only gives voice to that murdered lady in the lake, but to a diverse crowd of Baltimoreans. Narrators include a jewelry store clerk, a beat cop and an Orioles player. And as much as this is an atmospheric suspense story based on two true crime cases, it's also a compelling female adventure tale of Maddie at midlife coming into her own amidst a rich historical depiction of 1960s Baltimore - its music, newspapers, candy stores and changing neighborhoods.
Ruth Ware's "The Death Of Mrs. Westaway" is a tough act to follow. It was one of the best mysteries I read in 2018. But Ware sets expectations even higher for the novel she's just published by burdening it with a brazen title, "The Turn Of The Key," evoking Henry James's masterpiece of terror and ambiguity, "The Turn Of The Screw."
No worries, Ware slyly sets her tale of the haunting of a governess and her difficult young charges in an old mansion that's been renovated into a smart house, complete with a sinister assortment of blinking surveillance cameras and talking refrigerators. It's a toss-up as to whether the alleged ghosts or these gadgets are responsible for shattering our poor heroine's nerves.
We readers know that 27-year-old governess Rowan Caine is a broken woman from the opening of this novel, when we meet her in prison. Rowan has been charged with the murder of one of the four children who'd been under her care. Another thing we readers know from the get-go is that Rowan is not quite leveling with us. Like James's governess, who is one of literature's most unreliable narrators, Rowan is vague, particularly about her reasons for pursuing this isolated job in the Scottish Highlands.
Ware is a master of atmosphere. And here, the off-kilter weirdness of the old house itself seeps into every crack of this story. Rowan's mostly absent employers have torn the house asunder. In one half, they've restored the Victorian details. In the other, they've constructed a modernist glass vault, which Rowan says has the effect of exposing all the house's insides, like a patient who looked well enough above their clothes. But lift their shirt, and you would find their wounds had been left unsaid stitched, bleeding out. Get out of there, we jumpy readers find ourselves urging. But Rowan stays put for reasons we won't understand until the final breathless twist of this thriller.
Book titles aren't protected under copyright law, but if you're going to lift titles by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Henry James, you'd better bring your A game. Fortunately, it seems that Laura Lippman and Ruth Ware don't know how to play or write any other way.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Turn Of The Key" by Ruth Ware and "Lady In The Lake" by Laura Lippman. On tomorrow's show, we talk with writer Charles King about debunking the intellectual underpinnings of racism, sexism and homophobia. He says 100 years ago, nearly every educated person believed in a natural order of human potential which put white men at the top. His book "Gods Of The Upper Air" is about a generation of anthropologists who traveled the world and brought new perspectives on our differences. Hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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