Book review: Sunburn by Laura Lippman

It's little wonder that American author Laura Lippman's new novel was named one of the Most Anticipated Books of 2018 by a raft of newspapers, journals and reviewers.
Sunburn by Laura LippmanSunburn by Laura Lippman
Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Regarded as one of the best chroniclers of modern life in the USA, Lippman, who lives in Baltimore, has been awarded every major prize in crime fiction, and this bold and unsettling story about a pair of lovers locked in a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse is truly the darkest shade of contemporary noir.

Thrilling, chilling and crackling with suspense, Sunburn’s mesmerising mix of sexuality and violence pays homage to James M. Cain, author of 1930s American noir masterpieces like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce.

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Set in 1995, Lippman’s stunning, tantalising novel turns many of the traditional noir constructs on their head but retains the same ingenious plotting, subtlety, observation and air of mystery and fatalism that made the Cain originals so popular.

When Polly Costello (‘just one of the names she uses’) walks into the High-Ho bar in the ‘saggy, sad’ Main Street of small town Belleville in Delaware, it’s her sunburned shoulders that immediately catch the eye of fellow stranger Adam Bosk.

Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake and what is she doing on a bar stool 45 miles from the coast in a backwater town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening?

Polly is set on heading west and Adam says he is also just passing through, and yet they both stay in Belleville. Polly knows that ‘men always like her, when she can be bothered to try’ and Adam is drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him.

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Polly and Adam take jobs at the bar and over the course of a punishing summer, they abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. And yet they both still hold back something from the other, dangerous, even deadly, secrets that begin to accumulate as autumn approaches, feeding the growing doubts each conceal.

And then someone dies… but was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away, or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them? Something, or someone, has to give. Which one will it be?

Polly proves to be a deliciously dangerous, wild, mysterious and unpredictable leading lady, rampantly sexual, awash in lethal secrets, and forever gravitating to men as protectors, ‘even if she’s never quite found the right one.’

Using several narrators to confound and inform, and drip-feeding her readers nuggets of Polly’s complex past life, Lippman always retains perfect control of the story as she ratchets up the suspense to perhaps one of the best and most rewarding conclusions a crime fan could wish for.

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Lippman has created the perfect page-turner; gripping from start to finish, brimming with lies, forbidden desires, cold-blooded murder, blackmail and betrayal, and with not a word out of place, Sunburn is not just one of the year’s most anticipated novels, it could well turn out to be one of its best.

(Faber & Faber, trade paperback, £12.99)