The lives of three women collide in The Wife, The Maid and the Mistress, a pulpy 1930’s reimagining of the historical disappearance of Justice Joseph Crater.
Justice Joseph Crater disappeared in 1930, leaving behind debts, bribery allegations, and powerful “friends” in high and low places, an angry society wife and a pregnant showgirl mistress, investigators weren’t looking for someone who might have a motive to do away with the corrupt judge, as much as wondering who didn’t want the guy dead. Lawhon’s fictional account imagines yet another possibility in this historical whodunit, set in the glamorous and scandalous speakeasies of Prohibition-era New York City. Historical figures and landmarks give this novel even more realism, connecting Coney Island attractions and Broadway shows of the day with invented speakeasies. Neckless mob henchmen, Tammany Hall fat cats and their society wives, classic mob boss Owney Madden, a backalley doctor and a callous newspaperman complete the pulp novel scene. A bit heavy on the New Yawk dialect, but a rich setting.
Layered, connecting arcs reveal the stories and secrets of three women connected to the missing justice: his wife Stella, his showgirl/callgirl girlfriend “Ritzi”, and his maid, Maria. Each woman is keeping her own secrets from her husband, from police investigators, and we realize in the final scenes, even from the reader. Society wife Stella enjoys the prosperity that her husband’s promotion has brought them, but she’s not crazy about his new friends and his increasing secrecy. Hardworking Maria is not just the Crater’s maid, but also the skilled seamstress with mob boss Madden as a new client. With such nuance and character development in Stella and Maria, Ritzi’s background, a farmgirl turned New York showgirl and mob moll, feels a bit generic, and her softhearted-hooker narrative has been done many times.
While some of the narrative jumps between years and protagonist are disorienting, it becomes worthwhile in the final scenes, when an aging Stella reveals just how the lives of the smart-mouthed showgirl / callgirl, the brittle trophy wife, and the hardworking maid have connected.
Glamorous, vibrant settings and layered secrets in this pulpy historical fiction.