Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was in the mood for something a bit more fast-paced. So, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to read a noir thriller novel from 2018 called “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last February (and, yes, I prepare these reviews quite far in advance of posting them). If I remember rightly, I ended up choosing this novel because of the cool cover art and the fact that there were author quotes from both Lee Child and Stephen King on the back cover. Naturally, I was curious.
So, let’s take a look at “Sunburn”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS. I’ll avoid major ones, since this book is best read with as few spoilers as possible.
The novel begins in America in 1995. In a bar in the small Delaware town of Belleville, a mysterious man spots a red-haired woman with sunburnt shoulders sitting alone. He goes over to talk to her and tells her that his car broke down near the town. She isn’t that interested in him. Still, the man decides to stay in town and book a room in the same motel as she is staying in.
The red-haired woman, Polly, has stopped off in the town after leaving her husband and daughter several hours earlier. The man, Adam, is a private detective who has been following her for several weeks. As the two both end up working at the bar and gradually get to know each other, it soon becomes obvious that they both have many more secrets….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really cool modern-style noir suspense thriller that reminded me a little bit of a mixture between Marc Behm’s “The Eye Of The Beholder“, the film “Blood Simple“, Alice Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon” and maybe even the second or third season of “Twin Peaks”. In other words, it’s a dark, claustrophobic and grippingly suspenseful novel 🙂
In terms of the novel’s noir elements, they are brilliant. Although this novel doesn’t feature any trilby hats or anything like that, it has a wonderfully noir atmosphere thanks to a whole host of things. Whether it is the understated fast-paced “matter of fact” hardboiled third-person narration, the fact that almost every character is morally ambiguous and/or has a shady, secret and/or tragic past, the complex web of criminal intrigue, the brilliant focus on mystery and suspense or even the claustrophobic small town setting, this novel is modern-style noir at it’s very best 🙂
Plus, this novel also updates the gloomy realism of the noir genre too. Although traditional noir fiction is often currently thought of as a wonderfully stylised fantasy of trilby hats, rainy streets and old-timey America, these novels were actually gritty pieces of social realism at the time they were written. And, “Sunburn” updates this to the 1990s – with quite a few bleak and/or grim scenes about realistic tragedy, crime, cruelty etc.. all delivered with the kind of detached tone you’d expect from the noir genre. So, although this novel is a very gripping one, don’t expect it to be a very cheerful one.
This novel also does some really interesting things with the staples of the noir genre too. For starters, although Polly would probably have been written as a “femme fatale” character in a traditional noir story, she’s much more of a complex, and even sympathetic, character here. Likewise, although Adam is that most classic of noir characters – a private detective – he’s a million miles away from the grizzled gumshoes of old. He cooks, he falls in love etc.. and, in a lot of ways, is much more like the traditional naive “love interest” character you’d expect in an old film noir. So, this novel is an intriguingly unpredictable twist on the noir genre.
And, like in many great noir stories, the characters (or, rather, their flaws) are the main driving force for the plot too. This is a novel about complex, imperfect people with ulterior motives that collide in a way that you can’t really look away from. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom, or damnation, hanging over this story – which really helps to add a lot of suspense. Yes, the drama and suspense in this story is fairly small-scale, but this actually works really well since it not only adds realism to the story, but it also helps to add to the tense, suspenseful feeling of claustrophobia too.
Likewise, this novel handles the balance between mystery and suspense really well. The first half or so of the novel focuses slightly more on mystery, with intriguingly dark details and plot twists about various characters being slowly revealed to the reader as the story progresses. Then, when many of the twists, mysteries and secrets have been revealed (with a few held back for the ending, of course), they help to create extra suspense during the later parts of the story.
In addition to the suspense and noir-style plot, another cool thing about this novel is the setting and atmosphere. Given that I absolutely love stories, films etc… set in 1990s America, I knew that I was in for a treat when I saw “1995” on the first page. Interestingly, this novel is a lot more like an actual 1990s novel than a modern historical novel, in that there are very few “nostalgic” 1990s references here (the only ones I spotted were TLC’s “Waterfalls”, a video rental shop, Beanie Babies and a mention of Bill Clinton) and the story is just about ordinary life in a small town.
This actually makes the story feel more 1990s, especially since several of the story’s twists and turns rely on it being set somewhere without internet access. Not only that, the story’s 1990s setting is also relevant to the plot for a reason that I won’t spoil.
I’ve already talked about the complex, realistically flawed characters and the fast-paced “hardboiled” narration, so this just leaves the novel’s length and pacing to talk about. And, in this regard, it absolutely excels too 🙂
Like an actual novel from the 1990s, this one is efficiently short at about 292 pages in length. This helps to keep the story focused. Likewise, although the novel takes the time to set the scene and focus on several characters’ backstories, this never really feels slow-paced thanks to both the fast-moving writing style and the fact that all of these details help to add extra mystery, atmosphere or suspense to the story in some way or another.
Even so, the novel’s pacing is more like a traditional moderate-fast paced thriller rather than an ultra-fast paced action thriller. Still, compared to -say- a Raymond Chandler novel, this novel is a fairly fast-paced one. And it is very compelling.
All in all, this novel is really great 🙂 It’s a modern-style noir suspense thriller that is set in the 1990s and is filled with intriguing characters who drive the plot in a really dramatic way. Yes, it certainly isn’t a “feel-good” novel but if you like the 1990s, the noir genre or suspense, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.