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A secret life, reinvented

  • New York Times News Service
  • Published Sunday, August 12, 2012, at 8:51 a.m.

“And When She Was Good” by Laura Lippman (Morrow, 314 pages, $26.99)

Heloise Lewis runs “a boutique lobbying firm whose mission statement identifies it as a nonprofit focused on income parity for all women.” It is called the Women’s Full Employment Network. “And when people hear that, they never want to know a single thing more about Heloise’s business,” Laura Lippman writes, “which is exactly as she planned it.”

That’s because Heloise’s business is running a prostitution ring. But neither she nor Lippman’s new novel, “And When She Was Good,” see it as strictly tawdry. Instead this book’s emphasis is on Heloise’s impressive acumen and the levelheaded thinking that has gone into her entrepreneurial model.

It’s no surprise to find Lippman writing about a smart, capable woman who is overqualified for what she does. Many of her books are parts of a series about Tess Monaghan, a Baltimore newspaper reporter turned private eye. They are appealing, well-built mysteries, if not especially tough ones. But Lippman’s stand-alone novels have been much more nuanced and interesting. “And When She Was Good” is the latest case in point.

None of the cliches attached to prostitution apply here. Heloise would be quick to point out how dated and quaint those cliches are. She is a madam for the information age and has even borrowed some of her sales tactics from Amazon. She is also politically savvy.

Lippman crosscuts between the alert, guarded Heloise and the badly mistreated Helen Lewis, the drab girl Heloise used to be.

In a book that avoids hackneyed plot devices, Lippman makes Helen’s father physically abusive without giving his aggression a sexual component. She also makes Helen smart enough to get away from him before he figures out how to take full advantage of her helplessness.

“And When She Was Good” goes on to explain how Helen escaped from home — and then wound up under the thumb of another brutal man, Val. Again Lippman is too smart to wallow in the obvious. She is less concerned with the psychology that would draw Helen to a father figure than she is with Val’s Pygmalion role in Helen/Heloise’s transformation. Also important: Another suburban madam has just been murdered, possibly at Val’s behest.

“And When She Was Good” is a steady, surprising tale about how Heloise adapts when her business is put in jeopardy.

There are easy, conventional ways for Lippman to escalate and end her story. But she cares less about mayhem than about ways for Heloise to adapt her talents to changing times. Lippman’s nominal subject may be prostitution, but her book is not about a woman who takes care of clients. It’s about a woman who can take care of herself.

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