A psycho-sexual thriller divided into two thematically interlocking stories, Elissa Wald’s The Secret Lives of Married Women (Hard Case Crime) tells of twin sisters whose hidden selves get revealed in the wake of two crimes.
First story, “The Man Under the House,” concerns married mother-to-be Leda who, on moving into a seemingly safe and comfy home in Portland, finds herself being overly scrutinized by a stalker-y construction worker named Jack. Jack, we soon learn, knows about a part of Leda’s past that she left years ago: as “Leda Swann,” she had the role in a soft-core s/m skin flick entitled Payback. Appalled by Jack’s revelation, Leda wrestles with whether she should tell her husband Stas (who may have ties to the Russian mob) about the too-close fan’s obsession with her.
The second story, “Abel’s Cane,” follows Leda’s sister Lillian, a New York attorney who takes on a case where the chief witness proves to be a former paid submissive in an establishment called The Nutcracker Suite. Where the fist tale is told entirely from its heroine’s perspective, “Cane” is split into alternating chapters between uptight lawyer Lillian and chief witness Nan, who has sublimated her submissive impulses working for a blind industrial developer. After a copy of her twin sister’s DVD is found in her husband’s possession, Lillian grows more curious about Nan’s role as a masochistic call girl – and we know this curiosity will lead her into a different world.
More a character novel than “hard case crime” – its major misdeeds (murder, corporate fraud) occur offstage – Married Women’s major focus is on the ways these crimes impact its characters. While its theme of dominance-and-submission may lead a reader to expect pages and pages of Fifty Shades of Grey eroticism, the book only contains one full-blown sex scene.
Wald is more concerned with investigating her three main characters as they wrestle with their roles as women in a dangerous world. Though the title references marriage, the most intriguing and mysterious character to this reader’s eyes proves the submissive Nan, who holds more power than we initially know. Wald doesn’t “explain” any of her women, but her crystalline writing clearly exposes their states of mind.
A surprising entry in a book line that typically skews more toward hard-edged pulp – and a recommended palliative to any reader who’s subjected themselves to that Fifty Shades crap.