In the opening pages of Sunburn by Laura Lippman, an irresistibly noirish world opens.
Polly is a newly sunburned redhead, perched on a bar stool in an American town “where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening”. Adam, across the bar, is also new to the area, a blandly handsome fellow who “prefers his women thin and a little skittish”.
They first exchange words in the hallway of the red-lit motel where they’re both staying; he leaning casually against a doorjamb, she not allowing herself to get pulled into conversation. The weather is sultry; unseasonably so. “She has a version of herself that catches men’s eyes, but she’s turned that off for now, maybe forever. The only thing it ever got her was trouble.”
And then … well, everything past Chapter 2, says Lippman in a telephone interview, is a spoiler. Suffice it to say that these good-looking strangers, Polly and Adam, do indeed end up in bed together (if you don’t see that coming, says Lippman, “perhaps you should assign power of attorney to someone in your family”), and that they each have stories that we’ll eventually learn.
And that you’ll be sitting up late turning pages, as I was, to find out what those stories are, with the brassy, weary jazz of a classic film noir soundtrack playing irresistibly in your head.
Lippman is the bestselling author of more than 20 crime-fiction novels, many featuring her signature detective, Tess Monaghan, and set in her hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, United States. Sunburn, however, is something new; a twisty homage to the works of fellow Baltimorean James M. Cain, whose novels include classics like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and Double Indemnity. (Careful readers will also spot a tribute to a novel by another great Baltimore author: Anne Tyler’s Ladder Of Years.)
A fan of Cain’s since receiving a set of his books when she was 21, Lippman says that the idea to write a Cain-ish homage had been “living in the back of my head for a really long time”. When she began to write novels in the 1990s – she had, like Cain before her, been working as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun – Lippman originally planned on writing something dark, something hard-boiled.
“But that just wasn’t the voice that came out,” she says. “My early work is nothing at all like Cain. It was really a disappointment, but I accepted it – your voice is your voice.”
Her first book, Baltimore Blues, was published in 1997 and was the first Tess Monaghan novel; it’s now a series of 12 works. After seven Tess volumes, Lippman began branching out, alternating the series with stand-alone novels where she could get “a little bit darker”.
Set in 1995, Sunburn is, like Cain’s work, something from the past.
“I’m not sure I could have pulled off a contemporary noir novel,” says Lippman. “I know I only went 20 years back, but I needed some literal and figurative distance on the story.”
A novel in 1995 is one without cellphones and the Internet; it was, says Lippman jokingly, “the last good year (in which) to disappear”. But it’s also set in the 1990s for another reason; one that would require revealing too much of the plot to explain. (Read the book and share your opinion at email@example.com.)
Lippman shapes her intricate plots, she says, through revision.
“I start with a big idea,” she says. “I pretty much knew the climax of this novel, but there was so much else I didn’t have right about it, particularly the characters’ motivations toward the end.”
She makes charts – “very strange, colour-coded charts” – to help her visualise the characters and plot, and writes multiple drafts.
“It’s something I learned in journalism – clarity,” she says. “I think crime novels in particular have a responsibility to be clear where they can be clear. In a novel of secrets and reversals and twists, you need to be sure your reader is taken care of and can follow it. It’s all about revision and never being afraid to tear something up.”
Along with a recipe for grilled-cheese sandwiches that I’ve been obsessing over (Adam makes one for Polly; the key is finely sliced bacon – bacon! – and mayonnaise), Sunburn reminds us of the enormous pleasures of great crime fiction.
I read it through once at breakneck speed, needing to know what happened, and then enjoyed a more leisurely second reading, appreciating the steamy-hot yet icy world Lippman has crafted. Its dialogue has a hard sparkle, like the eyes of a noir femme fatale.
After nearly two dozen works of crime fiction, Lippman remains excited to craft more.
“I don’t see any limitation to the genre,” she says. Her conversation is peppered with the names of favourite crime-fiction authors, particularly women: Megan Abbott, Kate Atkinson, Alafair Burke, Ivy Pochoda, Attica Locke.
And she cites an essay by British author Nick Hornby, about Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River (2001), in which Hornby notes that good crime fiction does everything a literary novel is supposed to do – with the added element of a meticulously reasoned whodunit. (Literary fiction is a great pleasure, Hornby writes, but, “You don’t walk into lamp-posts when you’re reading literary novels, do you?”)
“I started out writing very mainstream private-eye books, and my books are still really mainstream crime fiction,” Lippman says.
“I’m still trying to do all the things that a crime novel does, or is supposed to do, and I would be disappointed in myself if I abandoned that task. Because I do think there’s something challenging and thrilling about trying to fit a very satisfying puzzle on top of what one hopes – it’s not for me to say – is a satisfying novel.” – The Seattle Times/Tribune News Service