In 1960s Baltimore, Cleo Sherwood's body is dragged from the city's central fountain and dubbed "The Lady in the Lake." It is Madeline Schwartz who will try to retrace Cleo's story. Maddie's marriage to Milton is in its own way as pragmatic as any conventional Jewish marriage in the mid-1960s, but it is also founded on Maddie's need to adopt a new identity rather than any traditional desire to settle down. With her beauty-queen looks, much of Maddie's life has been harmonious, but she's also been terribly, almost tragically naïve about her lot on life.
Maddie decides to strike out on her own, renting an apartment in a less-than-salubrious part of Baltimore. She gets a job at The Star, a local newspaper where she becomes a copygirl of sorts. But Maddie is anxious to report on "real" news stories. She's convinced that a happy resolution to the strange case of missing local girl Tessie Fine is still possible. When Tessie is found dead, the homicide detectives assigned to the case are under a great deal of pressure to make some kind of progress as quickly as possible.
While Maddie drives Lippman's story, Cleo moves in and out of the plot. She truly comes alive when she speaks in regretful tones, pondering why Maddie is deciding to look into her death at all. Maddie meets black cop Ferdie, but their affair must be conducted in the privacy of her apartment. In this racially divided era, there's no way they're going to go any place outside, not with her divorce pending and with "the world being the world and Baltimore being Baltimore." Maddie knows it's something she's obliged to keep to herself. She chooses not to ask Ferdie how he's able to wrangle a patrol car for his late-night visits to her.
Are you really missing if nobody misses you? Cleo's voice haunts this tale. Cleo's family deserved better than her "sad little spirit." No one can explain how "the dead negro woman" ended up in the fountain the same night she was working as cocktail waitress at The Flamingo, a sort of a Playboy Club for people who can't afford the real thing where "girls in slimy outfits sling watered down drinks while listening to second-rate bands."
Maddie is strong-willed, sturdy and stubborn, never the passive victim of an unhappy marriage. Set against the background of '60s-era Baltimore, Lippman's seemingly arbitrary sample of one woman's life is inspired by two real-life disappearances, one a girl, one a young woman, one white, one black. Maddie's colleague Bob is at first amused by her doggedness to find a good story, but because Cleo is a negro, it "wasn't a big deal when she went missing."
Cleo's voice has already disappeared from the pages of The Star despite her death being so public and mysterious. So much about the discovery of Cleo seems to parallel the death of Tessie, but in a "looking glass" way. There's never been an official cause of death, no swift arrest and no outrage. Maddie, enlivened by the matchless ghost of Cleo, is surprised the girl could afford such fine clothes, dresses and furs. When she visits The Flamingo, Maddie questions the motivations of Shell Gordon, the club's infamous owner. But what about Cleo's roommate, Latetia? Does it really matter whose body was in the fountain? Does it matter if the right person had gone to jail?
Lippman infuses her murder mystery with subtle moral lessons. In tender tones, she evokes Maddie's bourgeoning sexual nature. Maddie has a second chance at real love, though she isn't quite brave enough to take it. In an engaging style that evokes the recognition that years fail to entail, Lippman shows the dead do visit--but only if you know them well enough, and like with Cleo, you must listen to them closely, while they're still alive.