Maestra by L. S. Hilton (Putnam, 2016) 309 pages
I read this novel because I know L. S. Hilton as Lisa Hilton, non-fiction author who wrote books about Queen Elizabeth and other Medieval queens. I almost bought one, but didn’t, picking up a history of the Plantagenet dynasty instead. So why is Lisa Hilton, historian, now L. S. Hilton, “erotic” novelist? Probably for the same reason that Harry Turtledove, Byzantine historian (I have his translation of the Chronicle of Theophanes) became the award-winning novelist of alternate histories of WW II: because that’s where the money and fame are. At least Harry kept his name and personal history, while Hilton seems intent to disown any of that intellectual person she once was.
Why? Well, Turtledove’s former life was a good platform for his historical novels, although I wonder how much a deep knowledge of Byzantium had to do with understanding how the history of modern Europe might have played out if a few things had changed. But if what you are writing, as the New York Post said (proudly displayed on the Amazon page) is an “erotic novel [that] makes Fifty Shades look like the Bible”…well, you might want to keep those two careers separate. (I doubt anyone at the Post is familiar with how salacious the Bible actually is…you hear me, Lot?)
Also, if you look at the photo of Hilton on the end flap, that woman looks much more like the jet-setting serial killer in the novel than a history geek (although she is almost 42, the image on the book reveals that she is very well preserved). And when it comes to loving sex, no one can doubt that Hilton began laying the groundwork for an eventual titillating best-seller almost 10 years ago: see her article in the Guardian from 2007.
By the way, the title Maestra comes from the feminine form of “maestro,” meaning a teacher or someone of consummate skill, usually in the field of music. In Italian, oddly, the term maestro is used for both male and female.
Now, about the book itself, which is the first of a promised trilogy. I found the idea of a psychopath who kills and screws her way to fame and fortune intriguing, not in the least because every other female (and many of the males) in the book is either a vapid moron or fodder for the maestra to manipulate and conquer. But I found the sex a bit forced, if done with athletic vigor and sometimes drug-induced enthusiasm. To me it was more a curiosity than erotic (do people really do that? I guess so…but no thanks…maybe I’ll just wait outside).
The narrator, Judith Rashleigh, starts out as an assistant at a London art house, the kind that acquires art at an estate sale, cleans it up and appraises it, and then auctions it off so that international drug dealers can launder their money…I mean, so that discriminating rich people can enjoy fine artwork. But because Judy can’t get enough sex, she’s also a hostess at an upscale champagne bar, the ones where the good stuff costs 3000 pounds…but who cares, because the bank I work for is paying my business expenses, right?
Judy is apparently the only person who wants to better herself (she is tired of working for people who don’t have her Oxford education – as Hilton does – but who come from better families). Judy tries to be good until she stumbles onto a plot to sell a “school of” painting as the real deal (a Stubbs). She decides to celebrate her freedom by talking a client into taking her and a friend to the French Riviera, where the girls manage to administer an overdose to their sugar daddy. This event somehow inspires Judy to become a serial killer and pass herself off as one of the vacuous rich that flit on yachts between France and Italy and Spain as the whim strikes them.
Now, I surely applaud people who want to better themselves and become famous novelists after a series low-paying non-fiction books (ahem). But of course you can succeed by killing everyone and anyone who stands in your way. Especially if every coincidence and messy step with the cops and the mob happens to break your way. The trick is to do it while still playing by the rules. You can always cut the Gordian Knot, sure, but everybody with Alexander the Great could have done that.
This is the psychological thriller equivalent of the zombies who, when they chase others, run like the wind, but when they chase the heroes, stagger with leaden feet and stumbling gait. One or two coincidences and betrayals I could take, but by the third or fourth occasion of just-in-time escapes or great fortune, I started shaking my head and longing for a good evaluation of Queen Elizabeth among the rulers or her day.
No matter who old Judy shoots, stabs, poisons, or strangles, she is always one step or more ahead of those corrupt authorities who are, after all, as evil in their own way as our dear maestra. Probably more so, don’t you think? Because they’re supposed to be good guys, a claim Judy never makes for herself.
I did come away with an enriched vocabulary and a better sense of modern female fashion and style. If I ever need to pass myself off as a hooker in downtown London or an ingénue on the Riviera, I’ll know just how to dress for the lap dance or the dinner party on the big boat (see pages 7-8, 20, 55-56, 68, 77, 96, 144, 124, 144, 161, 244, 264, 279, etc).
Now, a lot of the words used in the book I knew, but seldom encounter in my reading (like the colonic on p.33). Many you can figure out from context (like the gun with the silencer she keeps in her Parisian escritoire on p.284). But I don’t often scramble for the dictionary like I did here (a lot of them are special food/clothes words, but there will be a test): angostura (p.9), peruke (p.26), syllabub (p.41), “ruched her pashmina” (p.45), squiz (p.53), monoï oil (p.74), etiolated (p. 79, but 10 points off for repeating this odd word for “feeble” on p. 270), passarelle (p. 104), kurta (p.124), foulard (p.144), snaffle ([.167), raclette (p.201), and “perse” skin and “kir framboise” (both on p. 215).
One odd oversight, although it is absolutely essential to the plot: the Eden Roc in Antibes on the Riviera (NOT the one in Miami), once noted for taking only cash, now takes finer credit cards. (How do I know? My father might have been a coal miner, but I am not a peasant…)
Note to self: If I can arrange for an illustrated edition of this book with a hot blond (Hilton?) dressed up in all the outfits in the book, especially if I can show the monoï oil on her nether regions, I’ll be a multi-millionaire.
But I’ll probably pass on the next two books. I just could not think of old Judy as someone I wanted to succeed. Actually, I wanted someone she trusted to gut her like a fish, preferably during sex while wearing only her pashmina. Maybe that’s how she ends up…one can only hope.