'And When She Was Good': Laura Lippman at 'top of her game'
In "And When She Was Good," Laura Lippman weaves the plot lines of a madam, her pimp and murder into a terrific tale. On Wednesday, Lippman will make appearances at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and Seattle Mystery Bookshop.
Special to The Seattle Times
Laura LippmanThe author of "And When She Was Good" will appear at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com). Lippman will also sign books Wednesday afternoon at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, 117 Cherry St., Seattle; call ahead to confirm time (206-587-5737 or www.seattlemystery.com).
Laura Lippman, a superb crime novelist — make that a superb novelist, period — often uses real events to ignite her rich imagination, including the kidnapping of a little girl ("What the Dead Know") and her own childhood memories of Baltimore ("The Most Dangerous Thing").
On the other hand, Lippman also invokes the late Donald E. Westlake's remark: "I became a novelist so I could make things up."
The quote is in an author's note at the end of "And When She Was Good" (William Morrow, 320 pp., $26.99). The story that precedes it could easily have been inspired by real events, though the author points out that it started to take shape years before any suspiciously similar headlines appeared.
In any case, who cares? "And When She Was Good" is a terrific book no matter how you slice it.
Helen Lewis grew up in a blue-collar household dominated by a classic abusive relationship: Her father drank and belittled his wife and kid, and sometimes the verbal abuse turned physical. Helen's mom, in an all too common fashion, tolerated and rationalized his behavior.
Helen escapes this toxic situation as soon as possible. Despite her smarts and resourcefulness, she's got a weakness for bad boys and a way of falling into bad jobs. One of these jobs is prostitution, and one of the boys, Val, becomes her pimp and the father of her son. Val also rules an unusual household: a group of prostitutes who live under the same roof and, cultlike, vie for Val's affections.
Helen leaves this "family" soon after Val commits a murder and is convicted of it, but she also feels compelled to visit him regularly in prison. During their jailhouse conversations, Val suggests something: Why not start an escort service run like a legit business, offering its employees benefits like health plans?
And so Helen becomes Heloise, a madam living in a quiet Baltimore suburb and specializing in a clientele of powerful politicians and other movers and shakers. She's a good businesswoman, and she prospers while maintaining a second life as a simple, if private, soccer mom. (Her neighbors think that she heads a foundation supporting women's rights.) Here's where the real-life headlines come in — remember Eliot Spitzer or the Million Dollar Madam?
But Heloise's carefully compartmentalized life is under siege. A former employee who apparently is HIV-positive is trying to collect work-related disability pay, threatening to expose Heloise if she doesn't pony up. Meanwhile, another suburban madam (like Heloise, one of Val's women back in the day) is murdered. And Val, shrewd and ruthless but with an unexpectedly sentimental streak, may soon be paroled ... and may discover that Heloise was the one who turned him in.
The result is carefully textured and compulsively readable, peopled by full-blooded characters and driven by a riveting plot. "And When She Was Good" is Lippman at the top of her game.
Adam Woog's column on crime and mystery fiction appears on the second Sunday of the month in The Seattle Times.