“Suburban noir” is a growing sub-genre in American crime fiction, fuelled by the success of TV series such as Desperate Housewives and Breaking Bad. And When She Was Good makes a welcome contribution to this trend, though an uneven one. In the afterword to the novel, Laura Lippman claims that she wanted Heloise Lewis, the book’s heroine, to be an American everywoman. She is, after all, a suburban “soccer mom”, but we soon learn that her job is an unusual one, and that Heloise has a dark past that will come back to haunt her.
Heloise used to be a sex worker and now runs a discreet “escort service”. The author is not coy, nor does she try to romanticize or gloss over the reality of the business. The women who work for Heloise wear GPS tags, supposedly for their own “protection”, and can earn extra money by having unprotected sex. Heloise, meanwhile, is not only happy to head the business, but also to lie to her son both about his father and his grandmother. Out of such unpromising material Lippman builds up an ethically complex story without preaching or taking sides too forcefully.
It takes a brave author to write a mainstream novel about the sex industry from a female point of view. Though the sex workers come from unhappy and troubled backgrounds, the story is not about victimhood, but empowerment. In an impressive opening sequence, our heroine chastises a group of strangers discussing the suspicious death of another “suburban madam”, Heloise’s strength of conviction, together with her articulacy and intelligence, create high expectations, but sadly these are not carried through to the rest of the book. To put it plainly, the main problem with this novel is that the heroine is unlikeable. She appears oblivious to her shortcomings, and has too much self-pity for someone supposedly strong and proud to have outwitted the men who abused her. Above all, she appears to lack empathy. The heroes and heroines of crime novels often have a tough exterior, but most are drawn in such a way that the reader can infer that this is a façade. Here, there is nothing to hint at a softer, gentler core beneath Heloise’s cold exterior, and yet she is not a villain either. On the other hand, she is not bad enough to carry the novel as a fully-blown anti-heroine. Patricia Highsmith, for instance, had the great ability to make her readers care for unsavoury characters, ranging from crooks to psychopathic killers. Laura Lippman does not, and our readerly pleasure is often hampered by the inability to work out quite how we should regard our heroine. Perhaps this is partly the fault of the third-person narrative: the distance that it creates between reader and character emphasizes the character’s coldness, whereas access to her own voice and inner thoughts might have painted a different picture.
The narrative moves from the present to the past and back again, gradually revealing Heloise’s past and the events that led her to her present life. This is a technique that has served many authors well, but it feels forced at times and this does not help with narrative pace, since the story does not rely on suspense. The plot twist, which is also the book’s climactic scene, does come as a surprise to the reader, but its resolution seems formulaic and unimaginative.
The narrative ends on a redemptive note, and Heloise’s choices as she faces her future remind us of what there is to admire in this book: a strong female perspective, a story that advocates without judging, a book whose themes are intelligently and sensitively handled. It is a shame that the author did not create a heroine or a plot worthy of her themes.