WHEN I PICK UP a new mystery, I know there are, very broadly, two ways the book can go. Either the author will pose a riddle, and then, over the course of a few hundred pages, lead me to its resolution. Or, the author will pose a riddle, and then, over the course of a few hundred pages, lead me to … another riddle.
Wilde Lake, Laura Lippman’s excellent new standalone, is the second sort of mystery, and proudly so: “You can never know the whole truth of anything. And if you could you would wish you didn’t.” It tells the story of Luisa Brant, a newly elected state’s attorney who finds herself involved in a murder case that sheds shocking light on the defining events of her childhood, calling into question her loyalties, her memories, and the very nature of truth itself.
Laura Lippman is the New York Times–bestselling author of the Edgar Award–winning Tess Monaghan series and nine acclaimed standalone mysteries. A graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Lippman worked for 20 years as a reporter, including 12 at the Baltimore Sun. She is a native and current resident of Baltimore, but as a teenager she spent three years in Columbia, Maryland — where she attended Wilde Lake High School.
I had the chance to discuss Wilde Lake with Laura Lippman over email.
ELIZABETH LITTLE: What led you to write such a thrillingly untidy mystery?
LAURA LIPPMAN: I think most of my books are a little on the untidy side. Several years ago, I was struck by the fact that most of the crime writers I know are, as I am, pretty liberal/progressive in their politics. And yet the crime novel is such a conservative form in some ways. Crime stories are stories about a grave disruption and the innate promise is that order will be restored. I’m not for the status quo, so I don’t know how to write anything but untidy, slightly melancholy endings. (Although my series books are a little more hopeful about the human condition — or, at the least, Tess Monaghan remains defiantly, ruefully hopeful about the human condition.)
One way you signal to the reader that she should question everything is by cultivating — to great propulsive effect, I found — the tension between what Lu believes as a child and what she thinks she understands as an adult.
I was interested in the hubristic nature of the present — we keep thinking we have everything figured out, we keep being proven wrong. Lu, looking backward and confiding in the reader in her first-person voice, is still making that mistake. She literally can’t remember that there was a time not that long ago that she didn’t know some key things about her father and brother.
Something else Lu says that has really stuck with me: “If by knowing, you mean you require some unimpeachable primary source — a video demonstrating the deed, a confession. But, by those standards, we would know almost nothing.” I am loath to conflate character and author, but in light of your professional background, I couldn’t help but wonder if you share Lu’s sentiment. Do you think we can ever really know anything?
I don’t think I could work as a journalist any more. I don’t trust anyone’s memory, so if you were trying to recreate scenes, as reporters do with long narratives — I would find that really fraught. I’d want to observe almost everything I wrote about. Even then, I wouldn’t trust it.
In your afterword you write — in what was, for me, one of the most provocative lines in the book — that, “[i]n the end, all errors are my own — and some are deliberate.” I’d hate to spoil the delicious ambiguity here, but I’d love to have a sense of when in the course of writing a book you choose to rely on research and when you prefer to turn to imagination.
The primary error in Wilde Lake is one I cop to — Howard County had its first female state’s attorney in the ’90s. And it was kind of rude to ignore that very real person’s accomplishment, but Lu just had to be the first, she insisted she was the first. She’s that competitive.
Early in my career, I heard Donald Westlake say, “I became a novelist so I could make things up.” But I still want my fiction to feel true. So I make a lot of stuff up, then do the research to make sure I’m in the ballpark, that people who know things won’t roll their eyes. In my next book, I’m working in a fictional setting, but I’m using a very true (albeit somewhat forgotten) story from my reporting past. I guess I’ve just said in a roundabout way that I play it by ear.
Wilde Lake is a standalone in the most basic literary sense of the word: Lu’s story has a beginning, a middle, and — to me, anyway — a clear end. But do you think it’s a standalone in the context of your work as a whole? Are there any parallels to be drawn between Wilde Lake and, say, your Tess Monaghan books?
Parallels between Lu and Tess perhaps, but not so much the books. Lu’s story is over, at least for readers. It’s unspeakably sad, but I imagine an alternative world where she finds a new path for herself, probably — I hate saying this — after her father’s death.
My dad died while I was writing this book and, well, he hadn’t been the father I knew for a little while. His death shouldn’t have changed the book, but it did. The death of Andrew Brant will change Lu’s life, too, allow her to close some doors.
Finally — and perhaps predictably, but darn it, I’m dying to know — what’s next for you?
So, back in 1995, Anne Tyler wrote a book that every woman I know was a crazy about, Ladder of Years. A woman abandons her family, just gets sick of them and stalks off a Delaware beach. This is an Anne Tyler novel, so it’s wonderful and wise and gentle and amazing. But — isn’t that also the most noir set-up you ever heard? To just walk off, abandon spouse and child? Who does that? In Pink Lady, I begin with a woman with sunburned shoulders, sitting in a bar in the fictional Belleville, Delaware. I’m right in the middle of it, so I don’t know how it’s going to end. But I know the last line!