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Leaving the Maid to Clean up the Mess

Ariel Lawhon’s debut novel reveals a plummy, pernicious mystery

Based on the unsolved disappearance of New York Supreme Court judge Joseph Crater in 1930, Ariel Lawhon’s debut novel, The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress, fleetly fills in history with colorful imaginary details of the case, revealing both the alleged perpetrators of the crime and the three fierce, mostly unwitting women whom Crater left behind in a web of lies.

The novel opens with a love triangle between the coarse, ruthless judge and two women: a Midwestern call-girl by the name of Ritzi whose ambitions to star on Broadway lead her down a dark path, and Crater’s scrupulous wife, Stella, who refuses to turn a blind eye to her husband’s myriad indiscretions. In the aftermath of his vanishing, Stella asks questions that no one will answer, and her persistence lands her at the top of the suspect list. The novel is set primarily in Manhattan against a backdrop of political corruption—mobster Owney Madden is a British nightclub owner with deep pockets and a penchant for tossing uncooperative parties into the East River—and follows the fatal fallout of Crater’s illegal route to the bench of the state’s Supreme Court.

There’s no real love lost between Crater and either Ritzi or Stella; the true romance in this novel lies between Maria and Jude, a married couple caught up to their throats in the political scandal. Maria works as the Craters’ maid, and—not by coincidence—Jude is promoted to detective and assigned to the case of the missing judge. The book opens, closes, and is intercut throughout with scenes from a meeting between Stella and Jude in 1969, thirty-nine years after Crater’s disappearance. The judge’s widow has called Jude to Club Abbey, Owney Madden’s bar and one of Crater’s old haunts. Stella offers to reveal, for the first and final time, the truth about what happened to her husband. “This isn’t exactly a church,” Jude tells her in the first chapter, “and I’m not much of a priest.” Stella, knowing she’s near death, is motivated to come clean: “Priest. Detective. What’s the difference?” she asks. “You both love a good confession.”

The third-person narration shifts between Stella, Ritzi, and Maria as the story implicates each of them in the cover-up. Collectively, this nail-biting novel possesses too many game-changing lies to count, but all are kept, under risk of death and ruined reputations, by the judge’s wife, mistress, and maid, for almost forty years. In untangling the secrets and the unexpected ways in which the characters plot, alone and with one another, this juicy novel pushes forward, all the way to its bang-up conclusion.

A longtime champion of contemporary fiction, Lawhon co-founded, in 2009, the national online book club, She Reads. In The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress, Lawhon, who lives in Nashville, demonstrates an immense talent for storytelling that’s rife with witty banter, adept plotting, and skillful pacing. The novel reads like a cross between Sue Monk Kidd and Beth Hoffman, although it’s set in the North and swaps those authors’ penchant for coming-of-age tales for a story about coming clean at last. Here, Lawhon has created a fully-realized world where longstanding loyalties change on a dime, and the result of slipping up—even once—can be deadly.

[This review appeared originally on January 27, 2014.]