Laura Lippman: It's hard out here for a madam

Laura Lippman's "And When She Was Good" offers a convincing portrait of a suburban escort service operator

Published August 23, 2012 6:45PM (EDT)

You hear a lot about the inimitable style of crime writers like Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard, and about how Michael Connelly is as good as many literary novelists working today. What you hear less about is how Laura Lippman, between installments of her successful Tess Monaghan series, is producing one stand-alone novel after another that plumbs the complex relationship of women to crime and violence with unprecedented sophistication and intelligence.

Lippman's latest is "And When She Was Good," a title that saucily suggests the novel will be racier than it is. "And When She Was Good" is in essence a character study, though the basic thread of its plot does generate a good amount of suspense. The character is Heloise Lewis, the proprietor of an escort service and, in her late 30s, a working prostitute.

Heloise is also a single mom, ensconced in a landscaped home in suburban Maryland, where she raises her son, Scott, with the implacable determination to give him everything -- an education, physical safety, respect -- that she was denied. Scott's father, Val, Heloise's scary former pimp, is serving a life sentence for murder. Though she still visits him regularly, Val has no idea that Scott exists, or that Heloise was the informant who put him away. The thrum of menace running through "And When She Was Good" begins when she learns that another "suburban madam" has died under suspicious circumstances and that part of the evidence convicting Val may be overturned, freeing the man she fears most.

The bulk of "And When She Was Good," however, is taken up with how Heloise came to this point in her life and how she runs her business. The narrative toggles between past and present, between a girl whose fate was largely determined by men -- an abusive father, an addict boyfriend, the imperious Val -- to one who has established a solid, if vulnerable control over her own fate. There's a lot of fascinating brass-tacks details about how to launder money (in a bit of local humor, Lippman makes one of Heloise's front businesses a lobbying firm) and wrangle a skittish clientele. There's not, however, very much about sex because what Lippman wants to keep front and center is that Heloise came to and remains in the sex trade for purely economic reasons.

Like the men who hire her, Heloise lives a highly compartmentalized life. She's polite but distanced with the neighborhood moms, who, naturally, don't know what she really does for a living. And none of her clients -- not even the lobbyist with whom she's become friendly and whose advice she seeks -- know about her kid. Lippman expertly conveys the acute vigilance that this level of secrecy demands from the exquisitely groomed Heloise; she's never entirely at her ease and she has no real friends. You wonder how Heloise can live this way, but as the secrets of her past unfold you see how experience has led her to believe that she has no other choice.

Linda Emond, who has narrated a few other Lippman stand-alones, does a credible job with this one. The narration's close adherence to Heloise's point of view doesn't give her much to work with -- Heloise is a very controlled woman. Revisiting some snippets from Emond's performance of Lippman's equally powerful 2010 novel, "I'd Know You Anywhere," about the dark past of another suburban mom, revised my appreciation of what Emond does with "And When She Was Good." The variations in her performances can be very subtle, but they are always true to the material.

I'm by no means an expert on the subject of prostitution, but as a journalist I've interviewed several sex workers at length. As a rule memoirs by women who have done the work present the most authentic picture, but with "And When She Was Good," Lippman adds the rare novel to a short and essential shelf.

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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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