April 2021 – The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon
Zion’s Book Club took a step back in time for their April selection to the 1930’s: New York City speakeasies, Prohibition, the infancy of the Broadway musical world, Tammany Hall politics, and the corruption overlaying it all. While our readers always enjoy suspense novels (‘preferably murder, mayhem, and a dead body in the first chapter’ to quote one member), this one had the added attraction of a true-life mystery. Author Ariel Lawhon took the very real disappearance of New York State Supreme Court Judge Joseph Crater and, after much research and creativity, gave us a possible, plausible, and interesting story of what might have happened.
We met Stella, Judge Crater’s wife, intelligent, opinionated, enjoying the social status as he climbed the political ladder, but hating his philandering and humiliated when he brought mistresses into their hosted social events. We met Sally Lou Ritz, better known as Ritzi, an aspiring actress working in the chorus line on Broadway, mistress of Judge Crater, questioning if the time-honored route of sleeping her way to a top role was worth the damage to both her body and self-esteem. And we met Maria, devoted wife to detective husband Jude Simon, deeply devout, talented and excellent seamstress, maid to the Craters, and in the uncomfortable position of having asked the Craters to help her husband secure a promotion without his knowledge. All three women despised Joseph Crater, an arrogant man who had bought his appointment to the court and was in debt to gangster Owney Madden. But what, if anything, did they have to do with the judge’s disappearance? Ms. Lawhon had most of us sitting on the edges of our seats as the story developed.
Unfortunately, jumping backward and forward in time seems to be a very popular technique for authors. Sometimes it works well and sometimes it distracts and confuses the readers. Some of our members felt the latter was the case in this book. As one said, this book had an ingenious plot if you could have just followed it! Others found it whetted their appetite for more of the story and made the book a page-turner. Certainly, there were many characters to keep straight, most real people but some invented out of whole cloth. The author obligingly included a list of them at the end of the book identifying actual people and invented cast members. As the story unfolded, we were first wrapped up in the disappearance of the judge, then horrified by the depicted violence that seemed endemic to both the political world and Broadway environs. Our readers felt something was off but couldn’t quite grasp what it was. Stella’s fierce response to her husband’s abrupt exit in which grief seemed oddly absent? Ritzi’s losing struggle to keep her distance from Owney Madden and to deal with a change that would wipe out any chance of success in the acting world? Maria’s internal tension over her inability to conceive a child and keeping a secret from her husband? While Judge Crater’s disappearance from their lives removed an abusive, obnoxious personality, it brought definite hardship in other areas. Therefore, what could have been the motivation for any of these women to be involved in whatever accident occurred? There were no satisfactory answers to this fictional problem just as no satisfactory answers were found from 1930 to the present to explain the missing judge.
Mental gymnastics were necessary on the part of Zion’s readers to follow some abrupt plot twists and disclosures. A few situations were a bit unbelievable like Ritzi contorting herself to fit in a cabinet under a bathroom sink. However, the author nailed the details of daily life perfectly, including the medical information. As a reader pointed out, New York City in the 1930’s had an underground medical practice of back street abortions whose success most often depended on which social strata the women seeking the procedure came from. While those with money might find an actual doctor willing to risk compromising his license, women from the entertainment industry relied on pills and techniques performed in dirty surroundings with the practitioner having no medical training. The results could be and were often fatal.
Ritzi’s journey home, while speculative on the author’s part (Ritzi, a real person, faded off stage never to be heard from again), let a softer side emerge in a book peopled with hard-edged characters. In Miss Lawhon’s version, Ritzi met with a compassion and generosity that was a welcome change. Maria might have been the weakest of the characters, perhaps because she was an imagined person, however plausible. Stella, on the other hand, took pains to remain center stage including the true ritual of annual visits to the NYC bar her husband frequented where she would have two drinks placed on the table and lift hers in a toast to her absent husband ‘wherever he was’. The visits lasted well into her ‘80’s and caused much speculation.
Without giving away too much (because who wants to read a mystery where you already know everything!), our readers were generally very entertained by this novel. The historical details appealed to those interested in different eras in our country’s past, while the depiction of three strong women at a time when females were treated as weak and ineffective also had some appeal. Character development, true-to-life background, and plot twists were handled well by Ms. Lawhon. As one reader mentioned, it was a very ambitious debut novel. Most of Zion’s readers felt it was a fast read and would recommend it as shown in the voting. Four readers were neutral while eleven gave it one thumb up.
Next month, our club will discuss Hostile Witness by William Lashner. Happy reading!