Everything past Page 8 of Laura Lippman’s Sunburn is a spoiler.
“It’s a tricky book to talk about,” the perennial New York Times bestselling crime novelist told Kirkus by phone from Baltimore, “but I trust you.”
That’s interesting. If there’s an essential question Sunburn poses, it’s, Who can you trust?
Set in fictional Belleville, Delaware, a nowheresville nestled between bustling beach towns and quaint hamlets, Lippman’s latest is a smoldering mystery set before smartphones. It begins one clear, hot day in June 1995, when a man walks into a bar and trains his gaze on a woman.
“It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him,” Lippman writes. “Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?”
Lippman is the author of 22 previous novels nominated for more than 50 crime fiction awards (Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, etc.), winner of more than 20. As Kirkus writes, in a starred review of Sunburn,“Lippman’s trademark is populating a whodunit with characters so believably complicated that they don’t need the mystery to carry the book.” According to the Washington Post, “She’s one of the best novelists around, period.”
In other words, she’s someone to watch. And what she does, introducing Polly Costello through the literal male gaze of Adam Bosk, ingeniously sets a foreboding tone.
“There’s something about watching that always feels transgressive,” she says, “even when it’s innocent, even when it doesn’t involve trespassing or criminal intent.”
I trust she’ll be watching, so I don’t want to spoil the story. But you can’t spoil something that’s not in the book. Sunburn has two vestigial chapters, first and final, that guided the story’s formation before expiring in edits. The first was six words, “Everybody hates me. You will too.” Final, just three: “Told you so.”
“My hope,” Lippman says, “was that people would read this book wondering, Who’s talking to me? Is it Adam? Is it Polly? Obviously, these two are not going to work out. (I don’t think that’s a spoiler.) They’re betraying each other, they’re lying to each other. Who will end up being damaged by their exposure to the other?”
A gorgeous noir that enlightens, frightens, and entertains, Sunburn is partly an homage to the detective fiction of fellow Baltimorean James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, etc.). Lippman fell in love with his paperbacks at age 22, on a bus ride from Chicago to Waco, Texas, en route to interview for a post-collegiate journalism job.
“Flash-forward not quite 10 years when I start writing my first mystery novel,” she says. “I think I’m going to write like Cain, but I don’t. A big part of it was a very female desire to please, a tendency to say funny, self-deprecating things—a tendency I gave my character.”
“Accidental P.I.” Tess Monaghan debuted in Baltimore Blues (1997), securing Lippman’s legacy.
“They weren’t noir books,” she says of the first seven of 13 Tess Monaghan titles. “They were ruefully optimistic books [steeped in] a sense of me wanting to be liked.
“Interestingly enough,” she continues, “by my eighth book, which is the one I wrote after I left my first husband, I was ready to be unlikable. Flash-forward another 10 years, and now I’m almost determined to be unlikable.”
Sunburn’s Polly is the kind of woman who doesn’t have female friends.
“She has no use for women,” Lippman writes, “which is why she has to make sure to befriend them. Women never like her. They feel threatened by her, which is silly. She’d never take another woman’s man, doesn’t even want that much attention from men. The problem is, when a man wants her, he usually won’t stop trying to get her.”
She’s passing through Belleville, renting a room by the week at the Valley View motel. She’s not formally educated, autodidactic, or literary. She’s literal. She may be lethal. And she knows how to get a man to do what she wants.
“Polly is someone who’s accepted the idea, ‘Men seem to like me,’ ” Lippman says. “ ‘I don’t know why, I kind of wish they didn’t, because it’s put me through a lot of pain, but I seem to have a quality in which I can get men to do things for me. Maybe they think I’m weak, maybe they think I’m vulnerable. Some of them want to sleep with me. I don’t care. If they have something and I need it, I’m going to figure out a way to get it.’ ”
Adam is a man women find attractive.
“He doesn’t go in hard,” she writes. “He’s not that way. Doesn’t have to be, if that doesn’t sound too vain. It’s just a fact: he’s a Ken doll kind of guy, if Ken had a great year-round tan. Tall and muscular with even features, pale eyes, dark hair. Women always assume that Ken wants a Barbie, but he prefers his women thin and a little skittish.”
He says he’s just passing through Belleville, but he’s soon renting a room at the Valley View a few doors down from Polly. Before long, they’re drawing paychecks from the tavern where they first met, the High-Ho (she’s a waitress; he’s the cook), and the inevitable workplace romance ensues.
“The era of the unreliable narrator is still having its heyday,” Lippman says, “but I think of Polly as the reliable narrator. As you said, she’s literal. She’s very truthful in her own way—Lord knows it doesn’t mean she always tells the truth—but she’s direct, if only because it’s simpler. She doesn’t want to be bothered with making up lies or having elaborate stories.
“But when she meets Adam and says, Listen to me, I just told you who I am, it goes right over his head,” she says.
Thus, their affair is bound to end in a conflagration. If there’s an essential moral Sunburn poses, it’s, When someone tells you who they are, listen.
“I’m someone who likes to walk through alleys and look through lighted windows at other people’s lives,” Lippman says. “I feel what you see on the alley-side of houses is closer to real life than what you see on the front side of houses. I’m not a peeping Tom, per se, but when you see a glimpse of someone else’s life, when you think you’re catching someone unaware, and it feels candid and real, that’s very powerful to me.
“I’m suspicious of people who aren’t interested in the lives of other people,” she says. “Those are the people who make me nervous, the people who genuinely have no curiosity. To me, they’re the most dangerous people of all—and that’s actually what my next book is about.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer.