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Review: Laura Lippman's 'Sunburn'


This commentary originally aired February 19, 2018.  

Inspired by the noir novels of James M. Cain, Laura Lippman assiduously delivers a masterpiece of the form in her steamy novel Sunburn. An alleged secret stash of cash from a questionable insurance settlement, apparently amoral characters, and ulterior motives all mixed up because of a fervid love affair simmer over a steady flame, until everything combusts.

The first thing Adam notices about Polly when he spies her in a local Tavern in Belleville, Delaware is her sunburned shoulders; why would a red head of her age make such a rookie mistake? And so we begin.

Adam is counting on a straightforward easy money detective job. He needs to find Polly, figure out her next move and figure out what she is running from. Imagine his surprise when he stops for a beer and is smitten with the barmaid, only to discover there is so much more to the story. Before he knows it, he is in deep, and his involvement in this easy job may have lethal consequences--for him, or Polly. Fast forward: Polly and Adam’s torrid love affair is as high-risk as what happens if investigators uncover their secrets.

The trick of a successful noir novel is to give the reader an unsettling feeling-- you want to know the protagonists’ motives, but you also want things to turn out okay; even though you know they can’t. Or can they? When Lippmann begins to unravel the game of cat and mouse, she knows exactly where she wants the reader to be.