By By Diane Scharper and Special to The Baltimore Sun
Aug 18, 2012 at 2:37 PM
Heloise Lewis wears several hats. She's a prostitute who runs an escort business. She's a single mom who voraciously reads classic literature and has a close relationship with her 11-year-old son. And she's entangled with a murderer who also happens to be a drug dealer, a crime boss and, although he doesn't know it, her son's father.
Meet the quirky but troubled protagonist of Laura Lippman's novel, "And When She Was Good," which looks at women's issues and at the sorry effects of murder, mayhem and drugs. It's not chick-lit; nor is it crime fiction. It's a little of each.
Lippman wraps her latest stand-alone novel in a who-done-it plot, but she's mainly concerned with such subjects as stay-at-home moms, the legalization of prostitution, abusive men and complex mother-daughter relationships. She examines the power of maternal love, specifically how a woman's love for her son can help her overcome dire circumstances, and glances at the role of siblings in a blended family.
Heloise Lewis appeared in two of Lippman's earlier stories. One, the novella "Scratch a Woman," focused on her twisted relationship with her half sister, Meaghan, who has a minor role in "And When She Was Good," a story in which relationships aren't just twisted, they're mangled. Starting with an abusive father and an overly passive mother, life for Heloise has always been difficult.
An honor student, she dropped out of school at age 16 and went to work full time. From there, her situation worsened as she became involved first with a drug addict and then with the criminal Valentine Day Deluca.
He prefers to go by his nickname, Val. When someone teasingly calls him by his full name, Val kills him in cold blood. Heloise and four others are witnesses. As the story opens, one witness has been killed, although the death first appeared to be a suicide. Gradually, Heloise realizes that Val, who is imprisoned in Baltimore's Supermax facility, has a contact on the outside who is killing witnesses. Will she be next? What will happen to her son? In the midst of these worries, she hears that Val might be released from prison on a technicality, a circumstance that is especially concerning because Heloise wants to keep Val away from her son, Scott, at all costs.
Lippman is the prolific author of the award-winning Tess Monaghan crime series and many other novels. A former reporter for The Baltimore Sun, Lippman has received every major prize in crime fiction. Although her latest expands her traditional focus on crime, it succeeds for the most part primarily because of Lippman's nimble style and her delight in irony and inside jokes.
Lippman lives in Baltimore and sets most of her work here. Local readers will have fun with her references to Baltimore attractions. Her latest mentions the Block, the Basilica and the central Enoch Pratt Free Library, which — painted in a few deft strokes — is immediately recognizable. Heloise is devoted to its collection of Great Books, which she reads assiduously between seeing customers at a nearby hotel.
Heloise lives in a suburb called Turner's Grove (shades of Turners Station). She frequents the nearby Starbucks where she reads the local newspaper. Every month, she drives downtown to visit Val and to give him his share of the profits from a business that he started but which she now runs: the Women's Full Employment Network. On paper, the WFEN is "a boutique lobbying firm." It employs a lawyer and an accountant, reports its income, pays taxes and health benefits. But despite its impeccable credentials, WFEN is a house of prostitution. Heloise is the boss. But then she wants out, and Val doesn't want her to leave.
Lippman calls Heloise an American everywoman. Hardly. She is more like a quirky character from Anne Tyler, Baltimore's other favorite female author. Lippman's writing brims with allusions, literary and otherwise. This book's title, although reminiscent of Philip Roth's novel by a similar name, refers to the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) poem about the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead. She could be "very good indeed" as well as horrid. The book's cover is designed around a lock of curling red hair.
The name Heloise is suggestive of Heloise, the lifestyle maven whose helpful hints appear in Good Housekeeping magazine and newspapers nationwide. That's in keeping with this Heloise's role as a mother, her "very good" side. But she's not just another homemaker — not by a long shot.
Diane Scharper is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She has reviewed books for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other publications.