A silky-smooth piece of noir. If a writer like James M. Cain or David Goodis had mellowed with age, had become a little less disenchanted with his fellow man, he might have produced something like Sunburn. Here we have a femme fatale, Polly, who’s as ruthless and seductive as any, yet whose motives are so praiseworthy that, despite the eventual body count, it’s hard not to be rooting for her. Here you have a classic example of the necessary chump, Adam, yet in a sense he’s not really a chump at all — in fact, he’s pretty twisty in his own right.
Polly and Adam meet one night in Nowheresville, Delaware — she’s just dumped her husband and young child, he’s a PI — and soon there are sparks flying between them. Not that they instantly bed each other — they’re both too worldly and calculating for that — but at the same time they both recognize there’s something greater than lust in the air. Before there can be any sort of commitment on either side, though, there are secrets to be revealed, secrets to be concealed, trust to be earned and abused . . .
Lippman sets her tale in 1995 (aside from a brief coda), and that seems wise. The lack of accouterments like cellphones and laptops means the text is given a certain feel of historicity that’s in keeping with its noirishness. Also, of course, lacking modern instant communications and vast publicly accessible databanks, it’s plausible that Adam should be able to tease out Polly’s secrets only over the course of a long hot summer — and not even fully at that — rather than through a single session at the computers in the public library. It means Sunburn can offer us a deliciously slow burn (even though the book’s not particularly long) as it heads toward a denouement that’s both unexpected — a great twist, in fact — while at the same time, with hindsight, completely in line with all that’s gone before.
Of course, that final twist is only the last of many that Lippman offers us in this exceptionally twisty tale. What’s perhaps even more impressive is that she manages to produce as many volte faces as you’d expect to find in anything by Gillian Flynn or Paula Hawkins without having to resort to an unreliable narrator. Sure, Polly and Adam lie to each other, but they they don’t lie to us, and yet the text still produces a stream of surprises as new perspectives on events are suddenly revealed.
Overall, then, Sunburn reads as if Lippman had set out to write a noir novel in which the hardboiled element, while not actually absent, tends to be in the next room, so to speak, rather than in your face. To judge by my own reaction, this won’t trouble fans of hardboiled fiction a bit, because all the rest is hardcore noir — it’s as if Double Indemnity had principals you could grow to like.