And When She Was Good

  • Laura Lippman
  • William Morrow/HarperCollins
  • 320 pp.

This latest crime story from the prize-winning creator of detective Tess Monaghan introduces a red-headed lobbyist who leads a double life.

Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark

“You have a nothing face,” a father tells his teenage daughter, Helen. Though it’s just one of many abuses he inflicts on her, she remembers the remark and believes it. Twenty years later, she has come to regard her unmemorable face as a blessing.

Helen Lewis leads a dangerous double life. To the outside world she appears to be a suburban soccer mom and an attractive but ineffective lobbyist in Annapolis, the capital of Maryland. We learn, however, that Helen has survived a relationship with a heroin addict, spent several years as a prostitute with a dangerous pimp and changed her name to Heloise. Now she is running a discreet and high-priced prostitution service.

Heloise and her 11-year-old son live in a posh suburb convenient to Annapolis and Baltimore. While she runs her business from their home, neither the boy nor the neighbors have any inkling of the source of her money. She keeps meticulous records, noting that although people who run prostitution operations rarely get arrested for that crime, they do get arrested for tax evasion and fraudulent business practices. She also steers away from friendship and romance to ensure that her two worlds stay separate.

Heloise’s carefully managed game starts to fray when a madam in a neighboring suburb is found dead under sensational circumstances. Then Heloise learns that Val, the father of her son and her former pimp, might be released early from the prison where he is serving time for murder. Heloise helped to put him there, but she has kept that a secret, and likewise has never told him that he has a son. If Val is released, Heloise fears that he will learn the truth and seek violent revenge. At the same time she learns that the death of the nearby madam was murder and realizes that the murderer is likely coming after her as well. With these two threats looming, Heloise plans to run away and assume still another new identity.

Laura Lippman has won many major prizes in crime fiction, including Edgar, Nero Wolfe, Agatha, Gumshoe, Barry and Macavity Awards. Eleven of her novels have featured detective Tess Monaghan, and while this book does not, sharp-eyed Tess fans will likely spot her in a peripheral reference. Most of Lippman’s books are set in the Baltimore area, which is described with an accurately observant eye. When Heloise goes shopping, for instance, Lippman writes, “It is one of the oddities of life in Maryland that no single supermarket can serve a household’s entire needs”; big chains don’t stock the exotic foods, organic markets don’t sell a range of paper goods, and “thanks in part to the efforts of one of Maryland’s best lobbyists,” nearly every grocery is barred from selling beer and wine.

The story of a bright girl, verbally and physically abused by her father, who runs off with a heroin addict and ends up as a prostitute may seem unoriginal, but Lippman’s skill with atmosphere, character and suspense make Helen/Heloise’s story interesting and fresh. The only false note may be that Heloise is allegedly forgettable; an impeccably groomed, expensively dressed red-haired female lobbyist is unlikely to blend into the Annapolis woodwork, no matter how unmemorable her face.

Lippman has given us the elements of a great crime novel: a gritty story, vivid characters and a fast-moving, twisting plot. She has also mixed in some astute commentary on crime, hypocrisy and human nature — as well as on Maryland supermarkets.

Susan Storer Clark, a frequent contributor to The Independent, recently completed a 19th-century novel, “The Monk Woman’s Daughter,” set in New York, Baltimore and Washington. She is a former broadcast journalist, video producer and publicist who lives with her husband, Rich, in Silver Spring, Md., and has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years.

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