Wednesday, January 29, 2014

REVIEW: The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

Genre: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pub Date: January 28, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Source: Purchased at FoxTale Book Shoppe
A tantalizing reimagining of a scandalous mystery that rocked the nation in 1930-Justice Joseph Crater's infamous disappearance-as seen through the eyes of the three women who knew him best.

They say behind every great man, there's a woman. In this case, there are three. Stella Crater, the judge's wife, is the picture of propriety draped in long pearls and the latest Chanel. Ritzi, a leggy showgirl with Broadway aspirations, thinks moonlighting in the judge's bed is the quickest way off the chorus line. Maria Simon, the dutiful maid, has the judge to thank for her husband's recent promotion to detective in the NYPD. Meanwhile, Crater is equally indebted to Tammany Hall leaders and the city's most notorious gangster, Owney "The Killer" Madden.

On a sultry summer night, as rumors circulate about the judge's involvement in wide-scale political corruption, the Honorable Joseph Crater steps into a cab and disappears without a trace. Or does he?

After 39 years of necessary duplicity, Stella Crater is finally ready to reveal what she knows. Sliding into a plush leather banquette at Club Abbey, the site of many absinthe-soaked affairs and the judge's favorite watering hole back in the day, Stella orders two whiskeys on the rocks-one for her and one in honor of her missing husband. Stirring the ice cubes in the lowball glass, Stella begins to tell a tale-of greed, lust, and deceit. As the novel unfolds and the women slyly break out of their prescribed roles, it becomes clear that each knows more than she has initially let on.


Once again, I am reviewing a book that is slightly outside my "comfort zone." Thanks to that wonderful book signing at the FoxTale Book Shoppe that I mentioned in my last review, I also had the pleasure of meeting Ariel Lawhon and learning more about her debut novel, The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, which was just released yesterday! Confession time: Before sitting through the event, I did not intend to purchase this book. I was wholly unfamiliar with this bit of history about Joseph Crater, I've never read anything set in the U.S. during this time period, nor did I have much interest in the 1930's New York political scene, gangsters, or Broadway. But during the panel discussion, Ms. Lawhon mentioned her great love of Agatha Christie and Christie's ability to subtly lay out all of the pieces you need to solve a mystery yet still make it nearly impossible to do so, and as she discussed a little about her book, I knew I had to pick up a copy.

While a work of fiction, this novel was certainly an eye-opener as to what life was probably like for some back in 1930's New York. The corruption, lies, and deceit of the political crowd, while clearly not the most savory of subject matter, certainly made for a fascinating and sometimes disturbing read. While there is not really any explicitly-depicted racy subject matter, much is implied, but thankfully in a manner that is not offensive. Truly, you can't help but get swept up in the lives of these three women who knew Joseph Crater the best. Each was very different, from Stella, Crater's carefully molded and groomed wife, to Maria, the seemingly unassuming maid and seamstress of some reknown, and lastly Ritzi, the mistress you want to hate but can't quite bring yourself to. (Admittedly, her story was probably the most fascinating of the three of them.) In bringing their stories and relationships with Crater to life, Lawhon's writing is vivid without being overly prosy and I could see the book playing out in my head almost like a movie. Quite honestly, I never would have thought that this was Lawhon's first book, as her storytelling and writing are far beyond many other debut authors I've had the pleasure to read over the years.

In the end, I only had one problem with the story and that was the way that Lawhon tended to jump back and forth in time from the various women's perspectives. The vast majority of the book is written during the period leading up to Crater's disappearance and the investigation that followed. However, Lawhon would occasionally take us back to events a few months prior to Crater's disappearance and it was often difficult to distinguish when the story moved back into the "present" time. While these flashbacks were absolutely necessary to the story (and in the end are quite crucial), I found the transitions jarring and sometimes difficult to follow. Perhaps had the flashbacks been their own chapters or scenes, I could have handled them better within the story.

When I reached the culminating chapters and realized what Lawhon had done, I was kicking myself for not piecing it all together on my own! While her mystery (as she imagined it, let me remind you -- this is purely speculation on her part) is not quite as complex as Agatha Christie's were, there were subtle clues sprinkled throughout the story so that if you paid close attention, you might realize where things were heading...though there are certainly plenty of attempts to throw you off the scent along the way! All-in-all, I thought this was a wonderful debut from Ariel Lawhon and I sincerely hope to read more books from her in the future!

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  1. Oh, sounds good! I think I heard about this somewhere... Netgalley maybe? I am more intrigued now!

    1. Initially, I bought the book in support of Lawhon's debut -- even after her comments about Agatha Christie, I had some doubts because it just wasn't normally a book I would pick up. I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Admittedly, since I knew NOTHING about the story at all, maybe that made it easier for me to enjoy because I'm not trying to nit-pick details. Then again, when it comes to historical fiction, I'm not really a nit-picker ;-) It's just more fiction to me!


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