The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress

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The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon, book reviewDuring the early part of the 20th century, there was a rash of public figures that were barely more than puppets for the many gangsters that flourished. From this time comes the story of Judge Joseph Force Crater and his mysterious disappearance on August 6, 1930. The investigation and speculation that followed for decades afterwards, garnered him with the title of “the missingest man in New York.” This cold case has now been fictionally re-opened from a new angle – that of the women in Crater’s life, in Ariel Lawhon’s debut novel The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress.

The fact that this infamous case may not be familiar to most readers should have nothing to do with their decision to read it or not. It certainly wasn’t a factor for me, since what intrigued me was more the idea behind the story than the real people involved. That idea was the difference between truth versus lies, but on the more subtle level of appearances and perceptions. You see, on the surface, women from that era seem to have been the subservient baubles that adorned their powerful men. In reality, despite the disadvantages that the law and society still held over them, they wielded far more power than most men believed they had.

Using this as the premise of the book, taking what was probably one of the more sensationalist stories of the era was a logical step. In the real case, Crater’s wife Stella and his mistress Sally Lou Ritz (aka Ritzi) were both very high profile personalities. Lawhon also brings in the Crater’s maid, a woman who called herself Amedia Christian in one newspaper article about the case. But Amedia’s name was never heard of after that one quote. If I had to guess, I’d say that it was this little fact that captured Lawhon’s imagination, and got her writing this story. By giving the maid another name – that of Maria Simon, the wife Jude Simon, who is a New York City Police detective – she sets up a chain of intrigue. This intrigue includes Maria having asked Crater to help advance her husband’s career, her walking in on the tryst between Crater and Ritzi and her being the tailor to Owney Madden – a gangster with the police department on his payroll. As for that last connection, Lawhon made Madden into someone who was also instrumental in Crater’s appointment to the New York Supreme Court. Through this, Maria becomes the connection point for all of the characters, even though the initial focus of the book is on Stella.

What impressed me most about this novel is how Lawhon has an instinctual feel for the twists and turns of a good mystery. Of course, a really good mystery is filled with clues regarding the conclusion, which point the reader in both the right and the wrong directions. These hints were artistically hidden throughout this story, even though we know at the outset that there was no real satisfactory conclusion to this particular tale. In order to add to the ambiguity, Lawhon eases the reader into her web of deceptions by juggling the actual chronological timeline with fictional flashbacks. This is an excellent literary mechanic for this genre which gives the readers insights into the motivations of the various personalities. However, it was in this that I found the only drawback of this book. While I didn’t have much trouble figuring out when I was reading about the past, there were times when coming back to the original timeline was less than obvious. It could be that these were spaced just a touch awkwardly, or that the contrast between them wasn’t quite sharp enough. On the other hand, because these flashbacks were from a matter of months to only a couple of years prior to the story at hand, I would have been more surprised if Lawhon had succeeded here completely.

With only this small criticism to its detriment (which might have been difficult for far more experienced writers to overcome), I have to say that Lawhon has done a stellar job in taking a mostly forgotten mystery and making it intriguing for modern day readers. As we follow how these three women were entangled in Crater’s life and disappearance, we also become entangled into their lives. All this is done in a style that has just enough of the 30s feel to it to make it authentic, without ever going overboard or missing the mark. For all this, The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon deserves a solid four and a half stars out of five, and comes well recommended.

The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon
Published by Doubleday, January 2014.
I would like to thank Doubleday Books of Random House for sending me the review copy.

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

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Written by Davida Chazan
Davida Chazan

Davida Chazan (aka The Chocolate Lady) was born in the USA and moved to Israel over 30 years ago. She's been reviewing books on the internet for over 12 years on various sites, including Dooyoo, Ciao and Yahoo! Contributor Network. Davida works as a Resource Development Associate for a Non-Profit Organization and lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three grown-up children. Davida is also a published poet as well as a gourmet of chocolate!

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