Death Gets a Time-Out

by Ayelet Waldman

Published by Berkley Prime Crime

314 pages, 2003




Sex, Drugs and Rock a Bye, Baby

Reviewed by David Abrams


Sex, drugs, blackmail -- the typical stuff of hard-boiled detective novels.

Sex, drugs, blackmail, diaper rash, morning sickness, obstetrician appointments and stray Cheerios caught in the curls of your hair -- these are the usual ingredients in Ayelet Waldman's light-hearted "Mommy-Track" mysteries, which star criminal-defense attorney-turned-stay-at-home mom Juliet Applebaum. Trouble is, Juliet rarely stays at home; she's always pushing a stroller around Los Angeles, chasing no-good characters -- adulterers, swindlers, murders and so on -- while juggling baby bottles and teething rings.

Juliet is married to Peter, a successful writer of B-movies that feature zombies and flesh-eating cheerleaders, and the mother of 5-year-old Ruby and 2-year-old Isaac. She frets over her weight, wonders if she should permanently retire her pre-baby wardrobe, whips up some fantastic cuisine featuring hot dogs and Velveeta, rushes between pre-school drop-offs and dry-cleaning pick-ups, and somehow finds time to squeeze in a little sleuthing. OK, a lot of sleuthing.

In Death Gets a Time-Out, Waldman's fourth entry in this series -- after last year's A Playdate with Death -- Juliet gets involved in a complicated murder case when her best friend, movie actress Lilly Green (a mega-star comparable to Julia Roberts), asks her help in defending her stepbrother, Jupiter Jones. He is accused of killing the second wife of his father, a charismatic New Age guru, the Very Reverend Polaris Jones. Polaris' Church of Cosmological Unity is building a religious empire in California and he can't afford to taint his reputation with a murder, especially one allegedly committed by his son against his wife. Did I mention that the wife and Jupiter met when they were going through drug rehab together and that they were lovers before Jupiter introduced her to his father?

Tangled in this case is the shooting death 30 years before of Lilly's mother, in which Lilly herself was implicated. While Juliet has a hard time believing her friend could have killed her mother when she was only 4 years old, the Oscar-winning actress says the event has burned on her memory and that she's managed to keep it a secret from the tabloids for all these years.

Death Gets a Time-Out is arguably the best of these mysteries by Waldman, a former public defender who has four children of her own. It's certainly the most complex, with a dark cobweb of family dysfunction covering the whole plot. Think Chinatown, but with strollers and morning sickness. As Juliet digs up more and more evidence about suspicious deaths past and present, her list of suspects and motives grows and grows. Yet at no point does this story become so muddled that we can't keep everything straight. Chalk that up to Waldman's snappy pace and the chattering, charming confessions of her mommy gumshoe (who likely has gum -- or Play-Doh -- stuck to the bottom of her shoe):

I love talking to other pregnant women, or women with kids. If I ever stopped to consider that I was actively enjoying an entirely unironic conversation about the relative merits of Huggies versus Pampers, I might have bemoaned my lost intellectual life, but honestly, who has the energy for that kind of self-analysis? I'm too busy swapping intimate details about my weight, sex life, and my children's bowel movements with total strangers I meet in the playground.

Miss Marple had her knitting, Nero Wolfe had his orchids and Sam Spade had his knuckles, but Juliet Applebaum's got the sharp wit of her creator, a breezy, infectious humor that sets the Mommy-Track mysteries a cut above others in its class. | July 2003


David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.