NIGHT FILM, by Marisha Pessl. Random House, 587 pp., $28.
Marisha Pessl's first novel, "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" (2006), was an audacious tour de force. At once cerebral and emotionally resonant, it displayed linguistic pyrotechnics and storytelling bravura far beyond the author's 27 years. Set in a North Carolina boarding school, the novel featured a charismatic teacher and his whip-smart daughter.
That book's key plot elements -- father-daughter bonding, youthful genius and an apparent suicide -- all figure prominently in Pessl's second effort, "Night Film," but they're given a very different twist. "Special Topics" was so caught up in word play and sly allusion that it was cheeky and fun. "Night Film" is fun in a wetting-your-pants-while-watching-a-snuff-film way.
The father and daughter here are Stanislas Cordova, a reclusive horror-film auteur, and his beloved Ashley, a child prodigy pianist who at age 27 turns up dead in Manhattan's Chinatown. Suicide is the official verdict, but the novel's narrator, investigative journalist Scott McGrath, suspects foul play. Never mind that he's already lost his job and reputation by making wild claims that Cordova is guilty of off-screen crimes worthy of a Charles Manson. McGrath stubbornly sets out to find out what really happened to Ashley.
Pessl's writing is consistently sure-handed and evocative, suspenseful and fast-paced. But she stuffs the book with so many noir ingredients -- a creepy Adirondacks mansion, a cult-inspiring film director never seen in public, a mental hospital that seems to hold perfectly sane patients against their will, an S-and-M club for Montauk high rollers and black magic at every turn -- that we begin to wonder what Pessl's been smoking.
The hip intellectual sheen of Cordova's films, a la Quentin Tarantino, provides cover for more conventional thriller highs. Some of his movies are so horrific that Hollywood refuses to release them; hence underground screenings open only to insiders. For devoted fans, Cordova's advice to "slaughter the lamb" is an exhortation to face down their fears and embrace life's challenges. Skeptics regard it as a grisly triumph of violence over vision.
In any case, Pessl loses me early on by giving McGrath two unlikely sidekicks. A young man named Hopper Cole mysteriously turns up at the site of Ashley's death, and 19-year-old waif Nora Halliday -- who supplies a clue to Ashley's vanishing -- just happens to be a Cordova buff with all the skills of a seasoned investigative journalist. In the effort to track down his elusive quarry, McGrath sets aside his usual cynicism and forms a team with the kids.
At this point, the only way to appreciate the book is to just buckle up for the ride. And a fast and furious one it is -- sneaking into buildings, paying off informants, risking lives.
One wonders, though, what Pessl is risking. Is she the novelist of substance we once thought, or a mere purveyor of cheap thrills?