“Love it. Hate it. Read it.” That’s what the red violator on L.S. Hilton’s 2018 Ultima said, Ultima being the third book in her “Maestra” trilogy (AKA the Judith Rashleigh trilogy): Maestra, 2016, Domina, 2017 and Ultima, 2018. Well, I did read it, and I did indeed love it, though even cursory blog and review surfing confirms there are those who hated it, NYT bestseller status, seven figure advance and six/seven figure upfront film option notwithstanding. Clearly some readers and reviewers fixated on the books’ sexual content, uninterested in witnessing a fully fleshed out femme fatale’s emergence, or uncomfortable with a radical heroine’s ultimate success.
Maestra’s austere black cover originally beckoned to me from my library’s new releases shelf. Much has been made of the provocative vertical red slit, though the trilogy’s other covers suggest the none-too-subtly-symbolic slit could be no more than a torn painting or a stiletto’s cut (a blade, not a shoe), precisely the kind of wound the trilogy’s utterly ruthless anti-heroic protagonist might inflict. I devoured that book, unaware at the time that it was planned as a trilogy, though sure that a sequel at least was forthcoming. But if ads ran or new books were shelved face-out at the bookstores, I never saw them, and L.S. Hilton’s memorable Judith Rashleigh eventually fell off my radar. I recently spotted a like-new copy of Maestra at a local used bookseller. Reacquainting myself with one of the neo-noir thriller niche’s most intriguing femmes fatales, I got the balance of the series immediately.
Suspense? Thriller? Frankly, some sixty-plus pages into Hilton’s first volume, Maestra, I was getting nervous with what felt uncomfortably close to a twenty-teens take on good old-fashioned chick-lit, all of that category’s tropes visibly in play: The uber-smart heroine suffering indignities in a hip, urban workplace where she’s surrounded by a cadre of catty coworkers and enduring a downright evil boss, the tale told with endless name-dropping on steroids, and not just the usual laundry list of designer apparel, shoes, fragrances, wines, shops and clubs. Maestra opens in a snooty London art auction house, so the name-dropping extends to artists as well. But I needn’t have worried. Once L.S. Hilton cut loose, the rest of Maestra and the next two novels were deliciously dark, provocative and true ‘page-turners’.
And yet, they were also much more than that.
Judith Rashleigh (Rashleigh…rashly?) is determined to leave her less-than-humble lower-class Liverpool roots behind. An overworked but underpaid London art auction house assistant, she knows more than her artsy-smartsy coworkers and the unfairly wealthy art patrons who buy and sell masterpieces like they were mere commodities. Yet this wise-beyond-her-years art historian reluctantly moonlights as a glorified B-girl in a men’s’ club just to get by. After barely escaping a gallery patron’s sexual assault (arranged by her own boss, no less) only to be sacked when she dares to question the authenticity of a pricey work of art, Judith commiserates with her one and only reliable friend. Not a coworker, drinking buddy or flat-mate.
Bit by bit, Judith Rashleigh (under various aliases) reinvents herself, and her journey from a Liverpool ragamuffin on the dole to owner of an art gallery in Venice pits her against dot-com billionaires and Central European arms dealers, gold-digging mistresses and the Sicilian Mafia, rogue cops and Russian oligarchs, while flitting from the Riviera to Berlin and all points in between, finally returning to London where everything began, and where she’ll extract her final revenge, deploying an uncannily crafty and uniquely female arsenal of weapons.
L.S. Hilton is the pen name for respected historian and biographer Lisa Hilton, who already had several well-regarded British history books and three historical novels to her credit when she began Maestra. They often say “write what you know”, and it seems that Hilton did just that. Hailing from the north of England herself, studying art in France and Italy and even interning at Christie’s have all lent an air of authenticity to the series. The art history rings true (at least it did for this former fine arts major), each book linked to a particular artist, such as the groundbreaking 16thcentury woman painter Artemisia Gentileschi in Maestra, Baroque era bad-boy Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio in Domina,and strangely, post-impressionist Paul Gauguin in Ultima. If all the highbrow culture and haute couture name-dropping sounds off-putting for traditional mystery/crime fiction fans, please reconsider. Maestra, Domina and Ultima are three kickass rollercoaster thrill rides of heists, murder and mayhem. It’s just that most of the criminal hijinks go down in luxury hotels, billionaires’ estates and opulent salons instead of dark-n-dirty New York back-alleys.
Much to my disappointment, some author interviews and reviews have been a bit juvenile, all flustered and fixated on the sexual content in L.S. Hilton’s Maestra trilogy. I’ve cringed more than once while reading articles comparing Maestra, Domina and Ultima to (shudder) E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey books, as if those mommy-porn books are the only current reference point for any woman writer whose work incorporates some adventurous sex. But L.S. Hilton’s Judith Rashleigh has more in common with Selina Kyle/Catwoman or Bridget Gregory from John Dahl’s 1994 The Last Seduction than she does with James’ Anastasia Steele.
Check out L. S. Hilton’s Maestra trilogy for an artfully word-smithed and complexly plotted thrill-ride of high-stakes extortion, theft, murder and revenge. But most of all, look for these three novels in order to finally experience a fully fleshed-out femme fatale’s own story. Hilton’s Judith Rashleigh isn’t a walk-on, sidekick, love interest, bed-mate or adversary in yet one more male cop’s, detective’s, spy’s, thief’s or adventurer’s story. She isthe story. I’ll have more to say about that in an upcoming post, but till then, look for L.S. Hilton’s Judith Rashleigh trilogy: Maestra, Domina and Ultima. Love It. Hate It. But do read it.
Author L.S. Hilton