You don’t have to tell me which term catches the eye. Nor do you have to tell Helene Lewis, the main character of Laura Lippman’s new novel And When She Was Good (William Morrow, review copy), which is very good indeed.
Heloise is shocked to read the newspaper stories of the death of a “suburban madame” in a nearby Maryland neighborhood. The woman, facing charges, presumably committed suicide, and the search is still on for her little black book of powerful clients.
This is why Heloise has shredders on 24/7 in the locked basement office of her comfortable Turner’s Grove home. Why she disguises her small escort service as an innocuous boutique lobbying firm, the Women’s Full Employment Network, which always pays its taxes. Why her affluent neighbors know her only as the widowed mom of 11-year-old Scott. And Scott is why Heloise will do anything to keep her secret life secret, going so far as to dye her hair red to match her son’s, who looks so much like his father, who he believes is dead. Actually, Val, her former pimp and the most dangerous man she knows, is in prison for life. Val doesn’t know about Scott, and, again, Heloise wants to keep it that way.
But Heloise’s past doesn’t just impinge on her present; it’s threatening to upend her strictly compartmentalized life. The vice cop who has protected her for years is retiring. A “friend” from back in the day wants money. So does one of her employees, who claims she contacted HIV while on the job for Helene. Her estranged mother is seriously ill. And her wussy accountant is suddenly asking pointed questions. But worst of all, Val could soon win an appeal and be out of prison and back in her life. Helene is fighting fires right and left.
Lippman seamlessly shifts between present and past to show how Heloise got where she is, always at the mercy of some man, starting with her abusive, belittling father. An autodidact with a GED, Helene is a scrappy survivor who hasn’t always made the best choices, especially where men are concerned. But her options have been limited. They become even more so once the police discover she has a connection to the dead suburban madam, now a murder victim. And there are other deaths.
Lippman’s cool, measured writing generates both sympathy for Helene and real suspense as her life spins out of control. Yes, there will be blood, but I’m not going to tell you whose. A mother will do anything to keep her child safe.
Heloise first appeared as a character in the novella, “Scratch a Woman.” Still, And When She Was Good is very much a stand-alone novel, and not just from Lippmann’s long-running Tess Monaghan series. Helene’s business is lonely men, but she’s lonely, too. To her mind, she stands apart from other women. That the distance is not as great as she thinks is Lippman’s singular accomplishment.