Along with Elizabeth George and Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman is mystery writer whose usual who-done-its transcend the genre. So it’s interesting that for her latest novel, Lippman steps outside the familiar ground of a straight-forward mystery novel and gives us a character study of a suburban madam.
Alternating between the past and the present, Lippman lays out the circumstances that led to Helen changing her name to Heloise and trying to escape her past. Fathered by a man cheating on his wife and stringing her mother along that maybe he’ll someday leave his wife and other family for them, Helen grows up desperate for her father’s attention and approval. Told at an early age that she has a “nothing face,” Helen hitches her wagon to the washed up, drug addicted son of her boss at a local Italian restaurant. He convinces her to drop out of high school, rob the restaurant and head out to the big city with him.
Before you know it, Helen is caught up in a life of prostitution as she tries to escape one bad situation and ends up in a worse one. Out of options, Helen’s one solace is sneaking to the library to lead the great classics of literature and trying to improve her mind while finding a way to improve her station in life.
Eventually her on-again, off-again pimp boyfriend is sent to jail for murder and Helen decides to try and leave her past behind. As a single mother, Helen sets up an escort service, full of rules and regulations for her girls to follow and adhere to. But the past is coming back to haunt Helen (now known as Heloise), just as she’s thinking of looking for a new lot in life for she and her son.
A stand-alone novel by Lippman, this one is less a mystery (though there are some elements of your typical mystery included here) and more a character study thriller. Lippman alternates between the present and the past, filling in details on what led Helen to her current situation and information how and why she’s made certain decisions in her life. On one level, the stakes are lower than your typical Tess Monagahan mystery, but on other levels, they’re much higher.
An atypical Lippman novel, this one works because of the crafting of Helen/Heloise as a character. A bit of an anti-hero, Lippman keeps up close enough to feel for what she’s going through and the events that led her to this point in her life, but at enough of a distance so her life isn’t being necessarily celebrated. It’s a fine line to walk and Lippman does it with ease. Don’t expect the happy hooker with a heart of gold here. Heloise is fiercely devoted to her son but also ruthless in keeping what she does in her business on the straight and narrow…well, as straight and narrow as an escort service can be.
This is a very different novel from one of the best writers on the market today.