Lippman Opens Up New Territory in And When She Was Good

In And When She Was Good, Laura Lippman gives us Helen/Heloise. Helen comes from an unhappy home where her father was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive and her mother always sided with him, leaving Helen to fend for herself. As a teenager, Helen ends up in a bad relationship, and in dealing with it and trying to extricate herself, she falls into prostitution. Though she’s under the control of a wrathful pimp, whom she also loves, Helen finds she’s got quite a talent in the industry. Most girls burn out quickly, but Helen manages to stay afloat and even thrive. She’s on a quest to better herself and sneaks books to read, going to impressive lengths in order to get herself a library card.

Then she finds out that she’s pregnant and that changes everything. It’s incredibly difficult and expensive to raise a kid in today’s world, and in Helen’s case, it’s even harder as she has no education or real work skills to fall back on. And of course, she wants her son to have the best of what she never had. Once her pimp is in jail and Helen has him safely off her back, she sets up a business under his guidance, where she provides an upscale escort service to Washington DC and Baltimore’s elite.

It’s illegal, but Helen has done this before and carefully assembles this business to make a new life for herself. She changes her name to Heloise, selects a beautiful house in the suburbs to live in, and engages in the compartmentalization that seems so necessary for sex workers—a Sandy in real life but Starr onstage and when in the club, with different personalities to match. This is the part that I find so interesting, because though we live in a world where, theoretically, everyone is equal and should be able to earn equal pay for the same skills, a woman can almost always make more money using her body rather than her mind. It’s an equalizer, I guess, if a woman is blessed with looks and at ease with her body, but even that power has been taken away from her since prostitution is only legal in Nevada and there is such a taint to the world’s oldest profession.

According to Heloise, prostitution is one of those crimes that are incredibly hard to prove, perhaps because so much of the supposed crime is based on nuance. It all depends on how you say it and if you name the act, which the smart madams and their employees never do. Where madams have been busted before is in filing their taxes. Lippman’s character Heloise is obsessive about her taxes, receipts, and records, and the process of how Heloise deals with the financial side of her business is described in loving detail. I hate taxes and anything to do with finances, so an author that can actually write about this in a profound way and use it as an important plot point is pretty impressive. The amount of information given almost seems like a good how-to for madams-to-be who want to get into the business.

I really wanted to like this book wholeheartedly and there are parts of it I adore. In the end, though, I found that the subplot of a murdered madam and former sex worker muddied what was an exceptional character study. Maybe some of my disappointment is because there is no easy solution or answer for sex workers and so their stories will always feel incomplete and unfair. Reading And When She Was Good, I couldn’t help but get het up about issues that the book raised: Why is prostitution illegal but what semi-celebrities have done by dropping sex tapes to secure their fame and fortune is not? And what is a happily ever ending for a sex worker? The only stories I know end badly—Heidi Fleiss ends up in prison, then addicted to drugs and on Celebrity Rehab. There’s Boogie Nights, where everybody’s screwed up by the end. And I don’t feel like I can count Pretty Woman as a contender for a real-life story about a prostitute. So though the ending of And When She Was Good doesn’t ring true for me, I still think it’s an important book about women, women’s issues, and prostitution.

Ending My Laura Lippman Binge-a-thon

I was first introduced to Laura Lippman through her Tess Monaghan series that she writes, and the two books that I read were all right, but not books that I felt I had to read. I prefer her stand-alone books, which are much darker and, I think, show more sophisticated writing. I’ve been glutting myself on her stand-alone novels this past year, and sadly I finished the last one I had not yet read last week, To the Power of Three.

She has a new title coming out later this summer, And When She Was Good, and it’s not part of the Tess Monaghan series. Yay! I’m heading to BookExpo America (BEA) next week, and I’m hoping that they have advance reading copies of it. Please, please.

In the last two books that I’ve read, she’s really tapped into the complex world of female relationships, rivalry, and aggression. In What the Dead Know, two sisters, Heather and Sunny, disappear from a mall. They’re presumed dead until thirty years later, a woman appears claiming to be the younger of the sisters. The seed for this Lippman novel is based on something that actually occurred in real life, and she plays on ideas of memory and how faulty and personal each person’s is, telling something more about who’s narrating the memory than the event itself.

In To the Power of Three, Lippman follows three girls, the popular clique, from elementary school through high school, which leads up to the violence that erupts between them just before they graduate and are ready to start their lives. I really think she gets the dynamics of high school right here—the power plays and shifting loyalties that occur in those four short years that seem so long.

These two books share some secondary characters—a pair of police officers—and of course, they take place in Baltimore, the setting for all of Lippman’s books. The best thing about her books is that I can never, ever guess the ending, and once the mystery is revealed the rest of the book holds together. In crime fiction, there’s nothing more disappointing than a crappy ending that makes the rest of the story—something you may have been enjoying for 300-plus pages—fall apart. Lippman always gets it right, but besides giving the reader a suspenseful, satisfying ending, she one-ups it by leaving you with something to ponder about the human condition.

Now, where she gets those insights—that’s interesting. I was looking for interviews of Lippman on YouTube, and I found a few clips of her from the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson. It makes me so happy that she’s a favored writer on a late-night talk show, and when she sits down together with Ferguson and they natter on about their favorite first lines, I wish that I was there. During one of their chats, Lippman mentioned that she was mildly sociopathic. When she was working at the Baltimore Sun, she was convinced that her bosses were making her crazy. To prove that she was the one who was crazy, they sent her to a psychologist who administered the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test. After tallying the results, the psychologist mentioned that she scored high in the sociopathic category—not as much as a full-blown sociopath would, but significantly high enough to comment upon. The psychologist believed that she purged a lot of these aggressive tendencies through her writing. This explains so much! I think I recognize this in myself and a lot of other writers that I know.