And When She Was Good
Review: Heloise Lewis finds that her career as a lobbyist for women's employment rights — a cover for her real job as a "suburban madam" — is threatened by a number of disconnected events that seem to be converging all at once in And When She Was Good, a stand-alone novel by Laura Lippman.
Heloise has no qualms whatsoever about what she does for a living, considering it a hospitality service in which she can take pride in how satisfied her clients are and how efficiently the operation runs. In a time of economic uncertainty, it provides her with a comfortable income and a good home and schools for her son. But the murder of another suburban madam, one who enjoyed a lifestyle comparable to her own, has her shaken. That crime, in and of itself, wouldn't be enough to make her think twice about possibly seeking an alternative means of support, but the potential and unanticipated release of the father of her son from prison, a man who doesn't know he even has a son, is far more troubling. And then there's her accountant, who seems to suddenly have developed a conscience about what she does. She's always considered him to be an asset to her organization, his confidentiality assured, but now he seems to have another agenda, one that jeopardizes the future her company.
For the vast majority of its pages, maybe the first 75-80%, And When She Was Good is more of a "novel of anticipation" than a "novel of suspense". There are hints as to which direction the plot is headed early on, but none of these are confirmed until well into the second half of the book. There is an unsolved murder that puts Heloise on edge, and for good reason, but that isn't the focus here. Any of the "dunits" one comes to expect in crime novels — who, why, or how — don't appear to be all that important to this story, indeed, are hardly present. (Which should be a clue in and of itself …) This is in many ways an elaborately constructed character study, a tale of a woman who has learned to ably take care of herself and her son, in spite of where she's been, what she's been through, and in what situation she finds herself now. And just when it seems as if the most relevant question to be asked of this novel comes up — Is this all there is to the story? — an unexpected turn of events hits Heloise — and the reader — hard.
Lippman uses the technique of interlacing an extended backstory into And When She Was Good by alternating chapters between the present and the past. This narrative style works — and is needed most — when there is a requirement to establish a firm foundation from the past to support events in the present. But the author is so adept at defining characters, setting up scenarios and developing subplots that it really isn't necessary here … at least to the extent to which it is used, as it takes far too long for the timelines to converge. But this is a relatively minor quibble.
To be sure, the risk for readers here is one of expectation … or maybe false expectation. Lippman is possibly best known for her Tess Monaghan mysteries, for which she has been recognized by her peers and her fans with numerous awards. But she has also more recently written a number of award-winning literary novels, where crime is only on the periphery of, or incidental to, the main story. The present book tends to fall into the latter category, far more literary fiction than crime fiction, a cross-genre novel if you will, which takes a number of narrative risks that more often than not pay off ... and those that do, when they do, pay off handsomely indeed. And When She Was Good is a really quite exceptional novel but one that does require a bit of faith that it will come together in the end.
Acknowledgment: HarperCollins provided a copy of And When She Was Good for this review.
Review Copyright © 2012 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
The Most Dangerous Thing
William Morrow (Hardcover), August 2011
ISBN-13: 9780061706516; ISBN-10: 0061706515
Location(s) referenced in And When She Was Good: Baltimore, Maryland.
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And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: August 2012
List Price: $26.99