Strip Poker by Lisa Lawrence
(Delta, $13.00, NC-17) ISBN 978-0-385-34073-1
Lisa Lawrence hits one out of the park in her debut book. While it’s become very trendy to label novels “erotic” these days, that’s exactly what Strip Poker is – it’s an erotic thriller with a mystery thread that keeps you guessing and a heroine who’s smart, savvy and sexy.

Teresa Knight likes her life unstructured. When the reader meets her she’s killing time in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan playing strip gin rummy with an American aid worker. She doesn’t have a real job, and has made her way in the world by solving problems. For the right price, she’ll clean up just about any mess.

She gets a call from an old friend, Helena Willoughby, a very chic and discreet madam catering to the lonely blue bloods of London. Helena deals in male escorts (men only darling, female escorts are messier), and one of her best clients is under the gun. Janet Marshall is a very prominent black female politician in England. She’s on the short list for High Commissioner in South Africa and she also likes her sex on the wild side. Someone has sent a threatening note to both Janet and one of Helena’s escorts regarding their extracurricular activities and Helena wants Teresa to solve the mystery.

However to solve that mystery, Teresa will need to go above and beyond the call of duty – on the strip poker circuit. Seems the latest rage among the upper crust are exclusive games of strip poker where the players wager sex acts. Think of it as debauchery without getting your hands dirty. Anyway, after some quick tutelage, Teresa begins playing the circuit, and uncovers many suspects and convoluted motives. It’s when the dead bodies begin piling up though that it gets really interested.

Since this novel is written in first person, Teresa has to carry the entire story. She does so amiably, being a smart girl with a sharp mind and a quick wit. She lives by the seat of her pants, embraces the World at large, and is what one could call adventurous. She’s like a female James Bond without the weapons and cool gadgets. She’s an intuitive girl for hire, although not a detective. She lives by her wits.

The mystery here is very good, but at times confusing. Towards the middle half of the novel the author has Teresa going round in circles, and the talking. Oh the talking! It’s enough to make a reader’s head swim and I felt like I needed a scorecard. That said, once the resolution is in play, and the villain apprehended, it all boils down to a more manageable serving. Readers may find themselves rereading passages, but it’s an enjoyable muddle.

The word “erotic” is fairly loaded, and one that will surely generate expectations. Erotic in this case means just that – erotic not romantic. Teresa has a lot of sexual encounters over the course of the story, with several parties. She even commits what some might see as a cardinal sin – falling for the guy who is already attached. Or is he? To say he’s embroiled in a messy love affair is an understatement. So will our girl bag a guy (or girl) for her own happily ever after? Maybe, maybe not – but she comes out ahead of the game, solves the mystery, and gets paid. Plus, is she officially retired? One prays that Lawrence isn’t finished with her yet. This could easily be the start of a series, one that could launch a thousand ships. An erotic-thriller/mystery series? What could be more naughty and entertaining than that?

--Wendy Crutcher

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