“Maybe everybody lies, all the time”
There is a recommendation on the back of this paperback from Stephen King: “Loving Sunburn. Suspenseful as hell, and she writes like a dream”. I won’t lie and say that I bought and read this novel because of Stephen King. I’m not lying. I actually bought the book because of the cover (a sexy redhead in sunglasses), and because it had been described as a “noir gem” by Gillian Flynn, the author of Gone Girl (2012), Sharp Objects(2009) and Dark Places (2006). As a lover of classic cinema, film noirs have been delicious forms of guilty pleasure for me. In the thrillers of the 1940’s and 1950’s, these (mostly) black-and-white films had charming detectives with dark pasts and beautiful women on the run with even darker pasts. The plots were complicated and the bad-guys were really, really bad. In fact in noir films there were more than likely more bad-guys around the corner hiding from the other bad-guys. In these films the characters are always drinking whiskey and smoking cigars and laughing at the hero’s plights. A Google definition describes ‘noir’ as: “a genre of crime fiction or fiction characterized by cynicism, fatalism and moral ambiguity”. Personally that is pretty much the reason why I have loved ‘noir’ and so-called ‘hard-boiled’ crime – it’s that cynicism and moral ambiguity that attracts my dark heart.
In Laura Lippman’s Sunburn it’s the early/mid-nineties and we are introduced to Adam Bosk, a private investigator (PI) who likes to travel, and Pauline Hansen/Polly Costello who wants to stay exactly where she is. Where they are is small town Belleville, Delaware in a small-town restaurant slash bar called The High-Ho sitting at this bar on Main Street. Where they are is described as a town
“put together from some other town’s leftover’s” (2018: 7).
Adam is there to investigate Pauline (or Polly as she calls herself in Belleville) and Pauline is there to hide from her husband Gregg and daughter Jani that she had recently run away from whilst on a family holiday at the beach a town over. The opening pages of this novel are enough to make anyone stay, unlike these two characters who appear to have no real reason for choosing to stay in Belleville, take on jobs at the High-Ho, a mostly seasonal restaurant and attempt the level of domesticity that they do. Adam’s intensely detailed description of Pauline/Polly’s sunburned shoulders and the colour and pattern of the dress she wears makes us want to get to know her too. On the first page Adam begs the question: “why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?” (2018: 3) when referring to the sunburn on her shoulder and the title of this novel. Indeed…
We learn through snippets of detail that Adam was hired by a Jewish slumlord called Irving Lowenstein to follow Pauline and to report back to him, as all PI’s tend to do. What Adam was not expecting was to fall for the enigma that is Pauline. It becomes increasingly clear that sometimes even Adam is unaware as to which version of Pauline he is indeed attracted to.
Pauline withholds so many details of her past that it is almost completely impossible to piece together her entire story until the very end, as Lippman is excellent at only divulging scattered details. Along the way we learn that Irving was involved in some pretty shady deals with Pauline’s first husband, an arson investigator called Burton Ditmars. It is with Ditmars that she also has another daughter, Joy. It seemed that Ditmars was not a very nice person, and it also seems that Ditmars is no longer alive – stabbed in the heart one night many years ago. However his death appears to have almost nothing (or perhaps everything) to do with Irving’s interest in her. It seems there may be an undisclosed amount of money at stake here too.
As Adam and Pauline grow closer and closer together, the limits to their levels of trust for one another are stretched when a fatal fire occurs in Pauline’s apartment, and details of her past start to slowly make it to the surface.
The slow hum-drum of the couple’s life in Belleville lulls the reader into a sense of complacency, and we start to root for Adam and Pauline, and we start to forget that there is something just not quite right with Pauline. What happened to her first husband? Why did she leave her second husband and daughter? Why is she still in Belleville? If there is any money, where is it? Does she know who Adam really is?
As complicated as the plot to one of my favourite film noirs from 1941, The Maltese Falcon, Sunburn is gloriously reminiscent of the very same genre it emulates. In one particular scene Pauline describes going to the cinema to watch old movies. The series of films she watched were shown under the title: ‘Raising Cain’ and included Double Indemnity (1944), Mildred Pierce (1945) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and upon investigation Pauline realizes they were originally all novels written by James M. Cain, an author of hard-boiled crime. I have seen the other two but have yet to see Mildred Pierce, but what I can tell you is that Laura Lippman’s appreciation for film is clear. In fact she even threw in the rather random character of video store clerk, Bob ‘Baba O’Reilly’, named after a song by The Who, whose film knowledge is impressive.
This is my first Laura Lippman, and I honestly hope that it will not be my last if this novel is anything to go by. Her writing style is reminiscent of Stephen King in that like King she is not under any delusions when it comes to human behavior, and moral ambiguity. The character of Pauline/Polly spoke directly to my vintage-loving heart, and the novel is packed with all the elements that make up a great thriller.