Wilde Lake review: A great crime writer at the top of her game

Laura Lippman has been writing brilliant thrillers for 20 years. This is among her best

Wilde Lake
Wilde Lake
Author: Laura Lippman
ISBN-13: 978-0062083456
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: €12.99

It would be inaccurate to say that Laura Lippman is underrated on this side of the Atlantic. No one who reads Lippman could fail to acknowledge her as one of the greatest of contemporary American crime novelists (to my mind, the greatest), and her name is routinely included in think pieces about the renewed prominence of female authors in crime fiction and the growth of the “domestic suspense” sub-genre.

Closer to the truth is that Lippman's books, regular fixtures on New York Times bestseller lists after a distinguished 20-year career, are simply not as widely known here as they should be.

Lippman began publishing in 1997 with a series of Baltimore-set novels featuring Tess Monaghan, an engaging PI in the Kinsey Milhone/ VI Warshawski mode. She supplemented these with Every Secret Thing and To the Power of Three, two brilliant standalones whose subject might best be described as, in fellow author Megan Abbott's words, "the dark majesty of teenage girls".

Lippman's breakthrough book came in 2007. What the Dead Know's haunting account of the disappearance of two young sisters and the apparent return of one of them is one of the finest achievements in crime fiction, a brilliantly constructed exercise in legerdemain that manages nonetheless to stay psychologically rooted and emotionally sound.


Her plots are skilful and ingenious, but rarely showy; she generally eschews rollercoaster twists and turns. But I can still remember exactly where I was sitting when the astonishing (but perfectly judged) revelation at the end of What the Dead Know blew through me like a raw wind.

Among the best

Always prolific, Wilde Lake is Lippman's 22nd book, and it is among her very best. Luisa "Lu" Brant, the first female state's attorney of Howard County, Maryland, is about to face the (male) boss she ousted across a courtroom in the trial of a mentally unstable drifter accused of beating a woman to death.

Lu is a widow, the single mother of young twins, and has moved back in with her father, himself a legendary state’s attorney for the same county.

In a parallel narrative, Lu recalls her childhood in a rambling Revolutionary War-era tavern on the shores of Wilde Lake with her revered father and older brother, AJ. Central to her story is the high school graduation night when AJ saved the life of his friend Davey from the wrath of Ben and Tom Flood, who believe Davey raped their sister. In a struggle with AJ, Tom Flood is stabbed and dies. The rape claim is quickly dismissed as "a vengeful tale told by a spiteful girl".

AJ is found to have acted in self-defence, and no one ever spoke of it again: “It was common then not to speak of traumatic things, to assume that a firm silence would lead to the fastest healing.”

The two separate narratives elegantly interweave. Past and present act upon each other until gradually, inevitably, the truth of that fateful night, and of the night of the disputed rape that preceded it, emerges, with tragic consequences for the Brant family.

Bone-dry wit

There is a certain type of recurring Lippman heroine: driven, competitive, highly intelligent, healthily interested in food and men and musical theatre, possessed of a bone-dry wit, simultaneously with a need to impress and a brutally relaxed attitude to making mistakes, to saying and doing the unpopular thing.

Check all these present and correct for Lu Brant, and add a dark, self-destructive edge that manifests itself in a need for violent sex with an old friend of her brother’s, and a persistent disavowal of the word “love”, and you have a compelling woman whose own secrets feel like ticking bombs.

Lippman has acknowledged her use of To Kill a Mockingbird as a model for Wilde Lake, and with her wise Atticus of a father, Lu is very much a suburban Scout, following her brother and his friends on their adventures, witnessing and recalling but never quite understanding.

Due to their father’s high status, the Brants are set apart, “high above everybody else”, and Lippman is deftly attentive to the class and racial differences that the idealistic local citizens affect to ignore, and to the license casually accorded to privilege. Eventually Lu discovers that her father has feet of clay, but also comes to understand that a hero can never be better than his times.

In a remarkable meditation near the end of the novel, which seems to encapsulate its complex, subtle, hard-won wisdom, Lu says: “The present is swollen with self-regard for itself, but soon enough the present becomes the past. This present, this day, this very moment we inhabit – it will all be held accountable for the things it didn’t know, didn’t understand.

“The things we don’t know, the things we don’t understand.”

Declan Hughes is the author of the Ed Loy series. His latest book is All The Things You Are

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a playwright, novelist and critic