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Turning classic noir inside-out: Laura Lippman’s ‘Sunburn’

Laura Lippman
(Lesley Unruh)

When you think of noir fiction — the erotic, morally ambiguous crime stories popularized in the first half of the 20th century — which authors come to mind? Noir geeks might cite Jim Thompson’s “The Killer Inside Me” or Cornell Woolrich’s “The Bride Wore Black,” but the forerunner and best known of them all is James M. Cain, whose novels arguably helped establish the standard for the genre in both fiction and film.

Unlike contemporaneous hard-boiled crime writers whose work featured knight-errant detectives (Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), Cain’s protagonists are the victims, suspects or perpetrators of crimes. A man walks into a rural California diner in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” commences a torrid affair with the wife of the owner and plots to kill her husband; in “Double Indemnity,” an insurance agent helps a client kill her husband for the insurance money. But in almost all of the classic noir stories (Cain’s “Mildred Pierce” aside) the protagonists — the people who make things happen — are men. Charming, sex-crazed, often thick as bricks, they nonetheless have the magnetic appeal of rapper MC Ren’s roughnecks. And the women for the most part were femme fatales— their roles as predictable and one-dimensional as the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray in the film of "Double Indemnity"
(UCLA Film & Television Archive )

So as widely admired as Cain may be, to pay homage to his memory and the genre by writing a modern noir is tricky on a number of levels. One, the dirt available on a potential lover with a few clicks of a mouse and a credit card today would kill the story in the first chapter. Two, raising Cain in a contemporary noir also means paying respect to the female pioneers of the genre — among them Patricia Highsmith and Vera Caspary, who deserve their fair share of recognition and acclaim. Lastly, to write truly modern noir, the writer must reimagine its female characters, who in bygone days were little more than cardboard cutouts, stereotypes in service of the dominant narrative.

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Laura Lippman is up to the task on several fronts. A Maryland native and former Baltimore Sun reporter like Cain, Lippman brings a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of human foibles as demonstrated in her 11 Tess Monaghan mysteries, nine standalone crime novels and a clutch of short stories. What’s more, Lippman’s novels are populated by strong women, from reporter-turned PI and mother Monaghan to Heloise Lewis, who escaped an abusive father and husband on her way to reinventing herself as a soccer mom and the entrepreneurial owner of a modern-day prostitution ring (“And When She Was Good”).

But in “Sunburn,” Lippman buries her lead by telling her story initially from the perspective of Adam Bosk, who appears to be just passing through Belleville, Del. Drinking red wine at the High-Ho, a downscale bar and diner, Adam is surreptitiously checking out a redheaded patron who’s nursing a beach-worthy sunburn she couldn’t possibly have gotten in a place that seems “put together from some other town’s leftovers.” The redhead claims she lives in Belleville, which Adam’s not buying. As he trails her to the nearby Valley View Motel — whose location boasts neither — the reader is immediately on edge: Is Adam looking for a hookup or something more sinister?

As the novel shifts to the sunburned redhead’s point of view, the reader learns she consciously chooses to call herself Polly Costello, which arouses suspicions of another sort. Doubts about Polly are compounded when it’s revealed she’s left behind a loveless marriage, literally packed her bags while on a family vacation to Fenwick Island, Del., with her young daughter and husband Gregg. “He wasn’t going to trap her,” Polly reasons, before dropping another bombshell. “When you’ve been in jail even a short time, you don’t like feeling confined.”

Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn”
(William Morrow )
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Lippman craftily circumvents the limitations on noir inherent in today’s digitally connected world by setting “Sunburn” in the mid-1990s, a time when Adam couldn’t snoop into Polly’s checkered background on a people-search website nor she check out his social media footprint. Nevertheless, “Sunburn” oozes with domestic unease, with women all around upending the natural order of things: as she was plotting her escape, Polly had heard neighbors talking about a recent, unnamed novel in which a women walks away from her family while on holiday at a Delaware beach (presumably Anne Tyler’s “Ladder of Years.”) Later, she reflects on the Susan Smith murder trial and empathizes with the accused’s motive for drowning her children: just wanting “to start over without her kids.”

Starting over for Polly is shedding the roles of punching bag, wife and mother, most recently by taking up a job waitressing at the High-Ho and renting an apartment over an abandoned dime store. Adam, feigning trouble with his truck, stays on too as the High-Ho’s cook. After Adam improves the menu with locally sourced produce, introduces a recipe for the perfect hamburger and plays mind games with Polly (by intentionally sleeping with another waitress at the High-Ho), the two begin the slow, inevitable slide into an affair the heat of which would put Cain to shame, and which provides readers with a few more glimmers of the secrets each is keeping from the other.

Lippman doles out the secrets in carefully calibrated doses by shifting the point of view between Adam, Polly, Gregg and others. When Gregg hires a PI to find his wife, the woman who takes the case uncovers a few of Polly’s secrets — including a couple of aliases and a sketchy past worthy of a classic femme fatale. Later, when Gregg shows up at the High-Ho brandishing a gun and is beaten by Adam, Polly’s mild protests are mingled with a lust for Adam she can barely contain. And when the man pulling Adam’s strings provides yet another perspective on Polly’s past, including a dubious insurance policy, it lays bare the extent of Adam’s deceit and betrayal of the woman he has unwisely come to love. But how can love flourish under the weight of such secrets? At what point does something, or someone, have to give? And who will get hurt, or worse, in the process?

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In a novel this good, it’s unfair to reveal too much of the plot or its twists, but suffice it to say “Sunburn” has more than a few, all of them satisfying. And while the echoes of Cain’s most notable works are there, “Sunburn” also pays homage to Maryland writer Tyler as well as the past queens of the genre while creating a unique, postmodern femme fatale who’s motivated by something more primal than a nihilistic impulse to obliterate the lives of those around her.

“Sunburn” is a portrait of a strong woman — equal to any Lippman has created — who has learned the hard way who she is, what she needs and how to defend herself. In doing so, Lippman sheds the limitations of the femme fatale as surely as Polly does her sunburned skin, revealing something deeper, more complicated and ultimately more unsettling beneath.

Woods is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, editor of several anthologies and author of the Charlotte Justice mystery novels.

Sunburn

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by Laura Lippman

William Morrow: 304 pp., $26.99


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