It doesn’t get much more noir than James M. Cain. Or at least it didn’t until Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” came along.
Back in the 1930s, Cain wrote a couple of novels that pretty much established — and perfected — the noir subset of hard-boiled crime fiction: “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Savage little sonatas of lust and lies, betrayal and revenge, they can still keep readers guessing, appalled by the characters’ behavior but unable to resist what comes next.
Lippman has plenty of first-class crime fiction on her résumé: a dozen books in the Tess Monaghan detective series, set in Lippman’s hometown of Baltimore, and nine stand-alone psychological thrillers.
“Sunburn” takes a different tack. It’s slimmer and quicker, pared down but equipped with more twists than a bag of snakes. It’s an explicit salute to Cain — at one point one of its main characters takes certain inspiration from the classic film versions of “Postman” and “Indemnity” — and a more than worthy one.
“Sunburn” is set in 1995, but it feels as if it has slipped halfway into the 1930s of Cain’s books. As it opens, a sexy redhead named Polly has left her husband, Gregg, and their 3-year-old daughter in the middle of a beach vacation and landed in a frayed little town inland.
Adam, “a Ken doll kind of guy, if Ken had a great year-round tan,” spots her sitting on a bar stool, the title’s sunburn across her shoulders all but glowing in the dark. They meet with a wisecrack:
“He looks at his own drink and says out loud, as if to himself: ‘What kind of [a jerk] orders red wine in a tavern in Belleville, Delaware?’
“ ‘I don’t know,’ she says, not looking at him. ‘What kind of [a jerk] are you?’ ”
For Polly, Belleville is a way station to gather herself and make a plan for escaping her marriage for good. Why Adam is there is not immediately apparent. It’s certainly not a garden spot. Polly is staying in a motel “named the Valley View, although there’s no valley and no view. The High-Ho, the Valley View, Main Street — it’s like this whole town was put together from some other town’s leftovers.”
But Polly isn’t all that transparent herself. When Adam asks her name, she thinks, “What is her name? Which one should she use?”
Both of them stay on in Belleville, getting jobs in the same diner where they met, her waiting tables, him displaying impressive skills as the cook — so much so that the dive starts turning into a real restaurant.
And, of course, they end up in bed together, although by then the reader knows that there are all sorts of reasons why they shouldn’t.
It’s tough to say very much about “Sunburn” without risking spoilers, and this book deserves not to be spoiled. It’s a virtuoso performance of crafting plot, point of view and voice to reveal some things to the reader while withholding others to create a decadent, delicious tension.
There are dark secrets and blackmail and deaths that might or might not be murder and, of course, money at the root of all that evil. There’s even an insurance guy tangled up in it all.
As Polly reflects, “She can’t afford love. No matter how much money she ends up with, it won’t be enough to have love, too.”
Or will it?
Colette Bancroft is the book editor of the Tampa Bay Times. On Twitter: @colettemb.
By: Laura Lippman.
Publisher: William Morrow, 292 pages, $26.99.
Event: Club Book, 7 p.m. March 14, Dakota Lodge, Thompson County Park, 1200 Stassen Lane, West St. Paul.