Book Review: 'And When She Was Good' by Laura Lippman
Review by Susan Grigsby
In the mid-seventies the paperback edition of the bestseller, The Happy Hooker was released. I can still remember the hot pink cover although much of the memoir itself has faded from my memory. It was after the pill became readily available, the sexual revolution was in full swing and no one had ever heard of AIDS. It was a heady time to be young and single. And live in San Francisco. We had broken the Puritanical restraints of our 50s childhood and had not yet succumbed to the dictates of the Moral Majority (which was neither) and medical necessity (which was both).
At the time, I was in a long-term relationship with a man whose expense account covered our lovely dinners at Sally Stanford's Valhalla Inn in Sausalito. Bill knew Sally, who was then the Mayor of Sausalito, although she had been a notorious Madam in San Francisco during the 40s until she was shut down by Jerry Brown's father, Edmund G. Brown, who was the City's DA.
It was said by Herb Caen, writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, that "the United Nations was founded at Sally Stanford's whorehouse," because at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco, in June 1945, many of the delegates were customers of Sally Stanford and a large part of the actual negotiations took place in the living room of her cathouse.
I met her during the dinners at her restaurant, where she would stop at our table to say hello. She must have been in her 70s in those days and totally charming.
That has been the total of my experience with madams and prostitution. As far as prostitution itself, I have always been on the fence, leaning towards legalization which would make it safer for all parties and eliminate the male pimps who now prey on women. It is, after all, a woman's body. She should be able to determine its use.
That said, And When She Was Good, the story of Heloise Lewis, a modern-day madam, has taken me one step further in my appreciation for those women who, through desire or need, become sex workers.
Laura Lippman, Heloise' creator, is better known for her Tess Monaghan mysteries about a journalist turned detective in Baltimore. She has received the Agatha, Anthony, Edgar, Nero, Gumshoe and Shamus awards for her work.
Tart. It's a potent four-letter word. Sweet, sour, sharp, sexy, bad, with a touch of cheesecake. It seemed to sum up the detectives in our segment of the crime fiction genre, the independent-minded female sleuths who are tough enough to take on thugs and corrupt cops, tender enough to be moved by tough, tender men (or women, as the case may be). These are neofeminist women, half Philip Marlowe, half femme-fatale, who make their own rules, who think it's entirely possible to save the world while wearing a drop-dead dress and four-inch heels.
I confess that I haven't knowingly read any Tart Noir, but it is a sub-genre that I look forward to investigating. And when I do, it will begin with the work of Laura Lippman.
Heloise doesn’t necessarily throw money at problems, but she does apply it in bold, confident strokes.
And little gems of wisdom like:
That’s the ultimate perk of power, not having to lie, because there are no consequences for telling the truth.
Musing over why a terrible diner with unpalatable food and indifferent service survived she writes:
It survived because it took for granted that certain customers were beaten down enough to come back, that the world was full of people whose expectations were so low that they couldn’t be disappointed.
This is a first-rate literate mystery that speaks to who and what women are and what we are capable of.
The novel opens with Heloise in a line at a Starbucks near her son's school. She overhears a couple discussing the apparent suicide of a suburban madam which is headlined in that morning's newspaper. Heloise lives in a neighboring suburb and has built her life on not being noticed. Of blending into the society in which she lives so that her son has a chance at a good, normal life. But on this morning, she can't help herself and interrupts the woman who claims that truly powerful men don't have to pay for sex, using the former New York Governor as an example and defends the dead woman from gossip. And while she wins that argument, she knows that the headline that disturbed her could just as easily been written about her life, with the same qualifier of the word "suicide" but no qualifier of "madam".
What no one realizes is that Heloise is also just another suburban madam, fortifying herself before a typical workday, which includes a slate full of appointments for her and the six young women who work at what is known, on paper, as the Women’s Full Employment Network, a boutique lobbying firm whose mission statement identifies it as a nonprofit focused on income parity for all women. And when people hear that, they never want to know a single thing more about Heloise’s business, which is exactly as she planned it.
And When She Was Good switches between the present day and the past to paint a portrait of a woman who was raised by an emotionally and physically abusive father and a passive mother. Both characters are seen through the eyes of a sixteen year old girl. As is her first love who introduces her to the shady world of strip clubs where she meets Val who appears to rescue her from her junkie boyfriend.
But Val only rescued her to train her as a call girl. A discount rate call girl. She is Val's favorite, and learns to walk the tightrope of his moods, something for which her father prepared her well. Eventually, finding herself pregnant, she escapes from him long enough to report Val to the police for murder. The detective uses a CI who is dying of cirrhosis of the liver in order to protect her identity. Convicted and imprisoned, Val can only control her from behind bars during her regular visits, never knowing about their son. He teaches her how to run a prostitution ring, making sure she appreciates the need of reporting her income to the IRS, reminding her that tax evasion is what brought down Al Capone.
By the time our story opens, she is a very successful madam and soccer mom. But then complications develop, beginning with the death of the madam in the neighboring suburb that turns out to be murder and not suicide. And then one of her girls gets HIV and Heloise pays for her medication which is not covered by the insurance plan she provides. Then it is learned that the ballistics expert whose testimony helped put Val behind bars lied about his education, putting all of his results at risk and offering Val a possible way out of jail. And then the vice cop who arrested Val and has helped keep her and her girls safe all these years is retiring.
Watching this smart, well-organized, businesswoman deal with these mounting challenges as well as with her son, who knows nothing of her work, or his imprisoned father, is fully engaging. It also gives rise to subtle questions about the roles of prostitution and lobbying in politics and business. And questions about the love of a parent for a child and a child for a parent.
The atmosphere changes from the rather dim, depressed town in which Heloise was born and grew to her teens to the sparkling sunshine of an upscale Maryland suburb where she raises her own child. I found the protagonist to be completely believable. A woman making do as best she can with what she has who begins to wonder what price she and others have paid for her "success."
I thoroughly enjoyed this change of pace book, even though the climax was pretty well advertised in advance. It didn't really matter because the characters themselves were worth spending time with.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.