When you are born into a region or era where poverty, addiction and crime are the norm, is it possible to escape and start life fresh? Or are we destined to follow in the footsteps of the generations that came before us? These are the questions confronting the main characters in two gritty new mysteries from Laura Lippman and Laura McHugh.
In Lippman’s Lady in the Lake, Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz leaves her husband and a privileged lifestyle to start over in 1966 Baltimore. After essentially stumbling across the body of a missing child, Maddie uses her moment in the spotlight to worm her way into a job at the city’s newspaper, first as an assistant to a life columnist and later as a reporter. Maddie quickly learns that if she wants to get noticed, she must assert herself, and thus takes up the case of a missing black woman no one else seems to care about.
Lippman alternates chapters between Maddie’s POV and secondary characters she encounters along the way—including the ghost of the missing woman. Most of the secondary characters don’t add much in the way of plot development to the overall story, but what they do add is a unique perspective to the social, cultural and economic climate that engulfs the book.
Lippman, who is best known for her award-winning Tess Monaghan series, worked at The Baltimore Sun for 20 years, giving her a firsthand perspective on both the world of women in journalism as well as life in Baltimore. While she depicts a city in the throes of 1960s-era racism and crime, she was quick to defend the city in the wake of President Trump’s recent rant against Rep. Elijah Cummings in which he called Baltimore a “rat and rodent infested mess.” “Cities are resilient,” Lippman told NPR in response. “The fact that we survive or thrive at all in the light of terrible problems isn't to be criticized; it’s to be celebrated.”
In The Wolf Wants in, the third novel from McHugh, young Henley Pettit wants nothing more than to get out of Blackwater, Kansas, and start life over again, free of the restraints her impoverished rural surroundings have forced upon her. But when there is no money, when there is no clear escape and when family constantly pull at you from all directions, dreams can all too easily be dashed.
With crime and addiction common among Blackwater’s populace, it isn’t entirely shocking when the body of a missing 10-year-old girl is discovered in the woods outside of town. A second set of bones, believed to be those of the girl’s father, are also soon discovered.
Meanwhile, Sadie Keller, the other protagonist of the story, launches her own investigation into the death of her brother, Shane, and his connection to the recently discovered bodies. Sadie and Henley’s stories, along with those of their extended families, ultimately intertwine in a complex tale of deceit, secrets and questions perhaps best left unanswered.
Both mysteries are grim, realistic portraits of lifestyles and regions too often overlooked in today’s literary landscape. The writers weave stories that are gloomy, heart-rending and oftentimes depressing. But both writers also do what literary masters do so well: They offer a glimmer of hope.