Sunburn by Laura Lippman review – noir tale handled with masterly flair

Revelations and twists in prose salted with wit and wisdom

Author: Laura Lippman
ISBN-13: 978-0062389923
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £12.99

Belleville, Delaware, home to 2,000 souls, has a bar called the High-Ho (not the Heigh-Ho), a motel named the Valley View, although there’s no Valley and no view, and a saggy, sad Main Street – “it’s like this whole town was put together from someone else’s leftovers”.

When Polly Costello abandons her husband and three year-old daughter on a nearby beach, it’s to the High-Ho she brings her red hair, her sunburned shoulders and her secrets. Why is she here, wonders Adam Bosk, in the kind of place people are supposed to pass through?

Adam doesn’t make his move yet, although it’s clear he will – he’s not the kind of guy who needs to go in hard. In any case, he’s not there by chance: he’s a PI on Polly’s trail. And he was warned: she’ll have sex with you if you get close to her. It’s what she does. That’s what the client said, and so when he falls for her, hard, as it turns out, he finds himself at least twice compromised. “He has to be clear, say: This is just for fun, no strings. Not that there’s a woman in the world who can hear those words if she doesn’t want to hear them.”

But maybe that’s all right. Polly (“What is her name? Which one should she choose?”) doesn’t altogether trust Adam either. Before she falls, she wants a sign. When he attends an auction with her to furnish her apartment, he insists on buying her a bed. “On the drive home, she keeps her face turned towards the cornfields and those arching blue skies, not wanting him to see how wide her grin is.”


Before they finally get together for “what can only be called a bender, one of those sex hazes where one stops for a little food, a little sleep, maybe a shower”, he feels “crazy jealous, thinking about her at another auction with another man. When he turns around, she doesn’t have a stitch on.” Nevertheless, she makes him work: “She fights him, bites and scratches. It’s shaming how much he likes this. They haven’t even kissed yet, and she’s drawn blood on him.”

Passion and infidelity

It's a moment that directly invokes (and inverts) James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lippman's declared inspiration: "Bite me! Bite me! I sunk my teeth into her lips so deep I could feel the blood spurt into my mouth. It was running down her neck when I carried her upstairs." We learn that Polly has studied Cain's great novels of passion and infidelity as if they were self-help guides, primers for a woman in recovery from an abusive past.

What is brilliant about Lippman’s achievement here is how she has reimagined the dark beauty and fever-dream erotic intensity of her noir touchstone and melded it with the uneasy will-you-won’t-you of the bourgeois mating ritual. “Eventually he will trust her, come to see that he was wrong to doubt her. But how can she trust him?” Or more protectively: “The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after the other, toward the goal.” But what is the goal? What, as a certain Dr Freud asked, do women want? On the evidence: respect, control, a little domination, a lot of intense sex, good sheets, a man who can cook and will buy her a bed, economic independence and to live with her child – even if she’s just walked out on her.

Rich philosophy

Rich philosophy for a noir tale to sustain, but Lippman handles it with masterly flair, delivering a thrilling succession of revelations and perfectly weighted twists in a fluent prose liberally salted with side-of-the-mouth wit and wisdom. What is often forgotten about Cain's work is the exquisite strain of romantic yearning at its heart; that's very much present here as Polly remembers a "tiny shred of poetry from grade school, something about a blue sky arching". The poem (The Witnesses by WH Auden, unidentified in the novel) seems to serve in the narrative as the promise of safe harbour. We've already seen Polly clock those arching skies when Adam buys her a bed; there will be one final, almost unbearably poignant sighting.

Declan Hughes is a novelist and playwright

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes

Declan Hughes, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a playwright, novelist and critic