Lawhon’s fascinating novel begins with the strange disappearance of Joseph Crater on August 6, 1930. A forty-one-year-old New York City judge, a successful careerist who often vacations at his summer cabin at Belgrade, Maine, with his beautiful wife, Stella, Crater vanishes while out on a night on the town. He is last seen walking down West 45th Street, and despite massive publicity, no trace of him is ever found. Nine years later, he is legally presumed dead.
On first view, Crater’s disappearance appears to be a robbery/homicide. In late July, Crater received a telephone call. He offered no information to Stella about the content of the call, other than to say that he had to return to the city "to straighten those fellows out." But the scattered story of a conflicted and bent Judge—and a confusing series of conflicting evidence left in his Manhattan apartment in the form of four manila envelopes (probably payoffs)—point the suspicious police to Crater’s mistress, voluptuous showgirl Sally Lou Ritzi, who was with Crater at the infamous speakeasy Club Abbey, owned by notorious gangster Owney Madden.
Questioned at the precinct by Jude Simon, the detective attached to the case, Ritzi gives an account of being trapped in a hotel room at Coney Island while a group of thugs attacked her lover. Thus begins an inquiry into a murder that ends with Stella sitting in a booth at Club Abbey, now just another relic in Greenwich Village in 1969, shepherding a scratched and dog-eared memoir face up at the table that tears asunder the very fabric of this hard-drinking, fast-living New York City of the Jazz Age.
In Club Abbey, where an aging Jude has his final encounter with Stella over a cautious lunch, closure is perhaps on the horizon. Each of them are approaching the ends of their lives. Jude mourns the loss of his beloved wife, Maria, who once worked as a housekeeper for the wealthy Craters and was privy to the Judge’s private shenanigans in a decade when divorce was frowned upon. An extramarital affair wasn’t so outrageous in such a decadent climate, and having a glamorous mistress like Ritzi was certainly a symbol of status and success.
Building her narrative from the points of view of Stella, Ritzi, and Maria, Lawhon brings a three-dimensional quality to the mystery of Crater’s demise, highlighting a torrid, abusive affair, an arc of murder, and the sexual self-destruction of both Ritzi and Joe in tour-de-force of erotic tension and looming violence. Lawhon holds Jude and Maria’s blissful romance in stark contrast to Ritzi and Stella’s instinctual attachment to a man so drenched in lust and moral confusion. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Stella is angry and reckless, an altogether irresistible, troubled woman who wishes only to understand the shifty business relationships her husband had with Owney Madden, who bought the judge his appointment through Tammany Hall.
Stella attempts hide the record of the bribes, at least until the authorities find Joe, while trying to subdue the reality that assails her: the townsfolk intent on dragging the lake for Joe’s body, and law enforcement officials who want to search the cabin. Maria also resents Joe, but for different reasons. She aches to have a child with Jude and will do anything to further his career, even manipulating a promotion without telling him. When she finds Judge Crater in bed with Ritzi and decides to keep the truth from Stella, the incident becomes the catalyst for the many secrets and half-truths that will heat passions, feeding a greedy press titillating headlines.
Pregnant Ritzi is adamant that she cannot go on. She may have dazzled her lover with exotic bedroom skills and her obvious glamour, but Joe is becoming increasingly belligerent and abusive, and his effusive demands that she get rid of the kid only make her more desperate. Increasing amounts of booze and high living fail to quell Joe’s conscience, the inevitable confrontation building to an unbearable pitch and a night (perhaps) of murder. But is Ritzi an intuitive manipulator of her gregarious, successful judge? Maria is no shrinking violet either, especially when she cajoles Ritzi into giving up her baby to her as a means to fund her happiness with Jude. Buoyed along on an island of make-believe, shaded with guilt, the fateful revelation involving the meddling Maria’s health forces her to steal some of Joe’s money to try to buy off Ritzi and to purchase her freedom that may also cost Jude’s job.
Unfolding her tale in short, layered chapters that keeps the action focused and tense, the author brings vividly to life the corruption and duplicity of the Jazz Age. Everyone is owed favors, from the layers of sleaze and bribery to the well-oiled machine that is Tammany Hall, to the scandalous Club Abbey, where certain “indiscretions” can upset the balance. In the end, Lawhon presents an unexpected twist on the mystery of the judge’s disappearance, giving us a highlighted glimpse into the past as well as turning a footnote of history into a rich and elegant novel.