“Sunburn” (William Morrow), by Laura Lippman
Laura Lippman’s versatility as a writer ascends to a new level with her excellent 22nd novel, “Sunburn,” which ignites as a classic hard-boiled mystery and contemporary domestic thriller.
Lust, deceit and the simple quest for happiness rule the plot as “Sunburn” works well as an homage to Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Anne Tyler. Lippman delves into a study of contrasts with a story that’s as cynical as it is hopeful, a look at hearts of darkness coupled with a domestic thriller. The 1995 setting also adds to the intense character studies — with no cellphones or social media to cloud each persona. Characters are seeking their identities yet submerging themselves with layers of duplicity. In the hard-boiled vein, Lippman takes the femme fatale — the linchpin of novels such as “Double Indemnity” — and puts a modern spin on this archetype, then turns it upside down.
At the center of “Sunburn” is Polly Costello who walks away from her husband, Greg, and their 3-year-old daughter, Jani, during a beach vacation. She’s been making these plans for a while, considering her actions a pre-emptive strike, knowing that Greg would leave her soon, without support for Jani. That would “trap” her as a single parent. And Polly refused to be trapped.
Polly doesn’t get far — the small Delaware town of Belleville, which has little besides a main street and the oddly named High-Ho diner, where she gets a job as a waitress. It’s what she needs — no stress, no one she has to take care of, just enjoying “steeping herself in silence” when she’s not at work. She doesn’t want a man, nor need one. Then Adam Bosk walks into the diner and the attraction is instantaneous. It suits her that Adam is only passing through; his job as a cook at the High-Ho is temporary, though he does know more than just flipping burgers.
Adam and Polly’s secrets are doled out in small revelations, making “Sunburn” even more intriguing. Murder, insurance, investigators and hidden loves come to the forefront as the characters struggle with their identities. The complex Polly is like the sun that Icarus flew too near, and anyone who gets too close to her heat is likely to get burned. Lippman shows Polly’s vulnerability, her strength, her compassion and her heartlessness. Even when Polly resorts to the worst possible behavior, the reader is still on her side.
The ingenious plot evolves into myriad twists that are as believable as they are surprising.
Lippman’s tight control on “Sunburn” delivers one of the year’s most intriguing mysteries.