Female protagonists in crime novels are wading into increasingly dark territory, and Helen Lewis in Laura Lippman’s new standalone “And When She Was Good” is no exception. Helen is a survivor who escaped from an abusive father and a submissive mother, only to find herself destitute and adrift. Uneducated but smart and beautiful, she reinvents herself as Heloise and sells what she has: herself.
As a high-priced call girl, she takes refuge with Val, a charismatic and brutal pimp whom she loves as much as she fears. For a few years she gets along, surviving and feeling as if she has nothing to lose. That changes when she gets pregnant, and to protect her unborn son she cuts a deal that puts Val in prison. Still she doesn’t cut herself loose. With Val’s help Heloise reinvents herself as a suburban madam. She runs the business from the basement of her house. To the other women in her neighborhood, she’s a standoffish single mom who drives her son to school and soccer practice. Her supposed job — a lobbyist for equal pay for women — provides her with the cover she needs to meet with clients who include Baltimore’s most powerful. When the stable, sheltered life she’s created is threatened, she makes some dangerous choices.
This is a novel about the power of sex and money and influence, and a potent argument for decriminalizing prostitution. But even more, its story of the transformative power of motherhood is as compelling as any thriller.
A more familiar tough female survivor is Special Agent Maggie O’Dell. In “Fireproof,” Alex Kava’s 10th series novel, O’Dell gets drawn into an investigation of serial arson when bodies are discovered in the wake of a warehouse fire in Washington, D.C. Soon there are more fires with more murders.
Maggie “chase[s] killers for a living,” and sometimes to catch them she has to “crawl inside their heads, walk around in their skin.” To maintain her own sanity she’s learned to “compartmentalize.” But her ability to maintain her distance is eroded by a recent brush with death, her divorce, and the death of her mentor. Her partner, the edgy Julia Racine, is no help. To Maggie, Racine is reckless and all too willing to take risks to get a result. A pair of local TV news reporters seem bent on making Maggie and her family the focus of their ratings-grabbing investigative reporting. On top of that, Maggie is being watched by a creepy and particularly sadistic serial killer who “liked strong women. He particularly liked to hear them scream.” No wonder she’s having trouble sleeping.
Arson, serial killings with mutilation — it’s strong stuff. For the reader who wants a fast read, Kava’s short scenes with cliffhanger endings are spot on. Multiple viewpoints amp the suspense, but also occasionally spoil what’s coming. An unlikely hero emerges, television reporter Samantha Ramirez, whom many readers will want to see more of. At the end, Kava leaves a major plot thread dangling — to be picked up, we hope, in the sequel.
DC Lacey Flint is another tough broad who finds herself surrounded by demons in S. J. Bolton’s “Dead Scared.”
Recruited by DI Mark Joesbury, a man she keeps telling herself she’s not in love with, Lacey goes undercover at Cambridge University. She moves into the room and the world of a first-year medical student who tried to set herself on fire and nearly succeeded in killing herself.
The only person who can know Lacey’s true identity is Dr. Evi Oliver, the disabled psychologist who alerted Scotland Yard to a troubling pattern: more than a dozen bizarrely gruesome suicides among Cambridge students, many of them women with a history of psychiatric vulnerability, over a period of a few years.
Lacey’s strict instructions are to become “the sort of student who might be thinking about suicide.” In other words, she’s bait.
Lacey becomes “Laura,” but playing the victim rankles her. Though she has been given strict instructions not to actively investigate, she can’t do otherwise. She and Oliver make a compelling team as each struggles with her own vulnerabilities, increasingly unable to trust her own senses or tell enemies from friends. The story barrels along with short scenes and rapid viewpoint shifts, and propelled by compelling writing. At every turn Lacey’s nerves and smarts keep her one step ahead of her tormenters — which makes the novel’s ending particularly jarring and unsatisfying.
And When She Was Good
By Laura Lippman
320 pp., $26.99
By Alex Kava
320 pp., $24.95
By S. J. Bolton
400 pp., $25.95