SUNBURN, by Laura Lippman. William Morrow, 292 pp., $26.99.
Consider the femme fatale. Deadly, beautiful, world-weary, she evokes a bygone world of swirling cigarette smoke, moody lighting, shimmering neon seen through a rain-washed windshield. A durable and particularly American phenomenon, she is subject to constant reinvention at the hands of generations of writers and directors. Seldom does she take form as memorably, though, as she does in the guise of Polly Costello, the dark heroine of “Sunburn,” the new book by Laura Lippman, author of the PI Tess Monaghan series and other crime novels.
Polly is about 16 different kinds of bad news, and her arrival in sleepy Belleville, Delaware, is the first step in what becomes an intricately plotted spiral of betrayal, corruption and death. Polly checks every box on the femme fatale checklist. She is sexually magnetic — “she does something to men,” as one observer puts it. She is ruthless; an ex-lover compares her both to an animal “that devours her male partner immediately after rutting,” and to “one of those diseases you get as a kid. Once you’ve had it, you’re immune.”
And she is a master manipulator. In true siren fashion, she quickly finds a patsy in private investigator Adam Bosk, who, in time-honored patsy tradition, is strong, handsome and dimwitted. Bosk is meant to be secretly running herd on Polly, but she turns the tables on him with comical speed, and the ensuing dance of sexual attraction, mistrust and deception is skillfully choreographed and crackling with erotic possibility. Polly and Adam circle each other warily before coming together for the clinch, which takes the form of “one of those sex hazes where one stops for a little food, a little sleep, a shower. Taken together, of course.” And that’s when the trouble starts.
The trouble, and the fun. Lippman deploys, with obvious relish and consummate skill, an assortment of classic pulp crime-novel tropes. There’s the mysterious outsider whose arrival throws a local ecosystem badly out of whack, the menacing villain from a buried past, and the closely held secret that explains all. What makes the novel such good fun for fans of the genre is the self-aware way Lippman plays with these conventions. (Rather than living on the traditional gumshoe fare of whiskey and cigarettes, for example, Adam Bosk turns out to be a skillful chef.)
Meanwhile, Polly turns up in all black, wearing “retro heels” and looking “like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis . . . tough, yet brittle.” And she goes to the library to scope out James M. Cain classics such as “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” studying the master’s relentless tales of sex and murder as if they were how-to manuals.
This is funny, but it is also more than just a good, inside-baseball joke. Lippman’s prose doesn’t, thankfully, attempt to imitate Cain’s famously hard-boiled patter, but their stories share more literary DNA than you might think. As in “Postman,” the couple at the center of the narrative achieve, however briefly, a semblance of short-lived domesticity, and “Sunburn,” like “Double Indemnity,” turns on the arcane workings of the insurance business.
Flourishes like these invite the reader to share some sly fun with the genre’s antecedents, but you don’t need to be steeped in the history of noir crime writing to enjoy “Sunburn.” What makes the book so lethally seductive is Lippman’s utter control over the narrative, which ticks away with relentless fatalism. A motif of fire, of burning, of heat as a weapon, starts with the title and runs through the book like a thread, while the forces of sex and death, the great twin obsessions of American noir, thrum just beneath the surface.
Most important, Lippman has complete mastery over the slow drip of a sinister past coming into focus — Polly’s history is all the more horrifying for the piecemeal way it is revealed. Like all thriller writers, Lippman is a canny student of human psychology, and she knows that a secret half-glimpsed can be far more potent to an active imagination than a secret laid out in capital letters.
But enough of formal analysis and technical shoptalk. The only test of such a book that matters, of course, is how tight its grip on the reader becomes, in extreme cases to the exclusion of sleep or food. On this metric, “Sunburn” scores very high indeed. The secret book critics’ guild decrees that the use of the word “unputdownable” by a reviewer is grounds for excommunication. I will just say instead that you should not start this book the evening before a day when you have anything important to do.