Heloise lives in a tony Baltimore neighborhood with her son Scott, but she's not like the other suburban moms. Beautiful and aloof, impeccable in Prada, she stands next to the dads during soccer games. She thinks more like a man than a woman anyway, and she prefers to avoid all the female chitchat.
Still her neighbors talk. How can a single mom possibly afford that big McMansion on her own?
Her standard line: Her husband died when she was pregnant, and she works as lobbyist on behalf of women's equality.
William Morrow ($26.99).
The truth: Heloise is a suburban madam who runs a highly successful escort service out of her home and who still services some of her clients ranging from politicians to lobbyists. A pragmatic prostitute, she views her beauty as a fading commodity and runs her business like the well-oiled startup that it is.
In Laura Lippman's newest novel, "And When She Was Good," the Edgar-winning mystery writer draws a nuanced portrait of a survivor who trusts no one and goes to desperate measures to give her son the kind of childhood she never had.
To create empathy for her character who is not always likable, Ms. Lippman alternates between the present Heloise and her past life when she was named Helen, a promising straight A-student.
Her plans for college are derailed by her abusive father, who degrades her ambition and self-esteem by telling her, "You have a nothing face." Helen rages not only at her sadistic father but also her subservient mother, who still worships the man who abuses both of them.
Instead of college, she marries an addict and then becomes a prostitute, falling under the influence of a pimp named Val. Things get even dicier when she becomes pregnant and does not tell Val, who goes to jail on murder charges, that he is the father of her son.
With her shrewd sense of survival, Heloise believes she has everything under control -- hiding the truth from the IRS, her neighbors and most of all, Scott. She has thought out every detail, including file cabinets with a shredder on the bottom.
But that sense of control starts slipping away when Heloise finds out that her friend Tom, a vice squad cop who would tip her off, is retiring and that Val may get a new trial. One of her escorts who says she has AIDS also threatens to blackmail Heloise. Ms. Lippman's fine pacing keeps you turning the pages.
Ms. Lippman, a new mother, has some great lines about Heloise trying to figure out the bewildering world of new motherhood while balancing a demanding career.
"She read books. She had always read books. But in this circumstances the books let her down. She needed more from them. She also needed less. More practical advice, less generic hysteria. What she required was a particular volume, written just for her: 'What to Expect from Your Toddler When You Are Trying to Put Together Your Own Escort Service.' "
While she captures a new mother's anxiety, she skims over the challenges of mothering a fatherless teenager, describing Scott as a perfect child.
But Heloise is a rich character whose maternal fierceness is authentic. Laura Lippman creates a memorable mother from the suburban madam plucked from the latest newspaper headlines.
Cristina Rouvalis, a former Post-Gazette reporter, is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. (cristinarouvalis.com).