Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Book Details

Originally published in 2018

The Blurb

They meet at a local tavern in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. Polly is set on heading west. Adam says he’s also passing through. Yet she stays and he stays—drawn to this mysterious redhead whose quiet stillness both unnerves and excites him. Over the course of a punishing summer, Polly and Adam abandon themselves to a steamy, inexorable affair. Still, each holds something back from the other—dangerous, even lethal, secrets.

Then someone dies. Was it an accident, or part of a plan? By now, Adam and Polly are so ensnared in each other’s lives and lies that neither one knows how to get away—or even if they want to. Is their love strong enough to withstand the truth, or will it ultimately destroy them?

Something—or someone—has to give.

Which one will it be?

The Verdict

Played in the key of James M. Cain, Sunburn is a powerful and clever work in its own right with striking characterizations and a great premise.

My Thoughts

There is a pivotal sequence quite early in Sunburn in which one of the main characters cooks the perfect grilled cheese sandwich for the other. It is striking because it marks the moment at which the two characters really begin to actively engage with each other and also because it does not involve exotic or expensive ingredients – it is a sandwich that uses familiar ingredients but it is elevated by the choices that chef makes in how each familiar ingredient is incorporated.

Lippman similarly draws on some very familiar ingredients in constructing Sunburn. The couple with secret agendas meeting in a diner after drifting into each others’ paths is straight out of the James M. Cain playbook, something Lippman clearly acknowledges at several points. Lippman’s originality and genius comes in the form of refining each of those familiar elements, respecting Cain’s achievements but then delivering something that feels even richer and deeper, particularly with regards the exploration of the mindset of her female protagonist Polly.

Polly, who also goes by the name Pauline, has arrived in the sleepy town of Belleville, Delaware after leaving her husband and young child during a short break at the beach. This is not an impulsive act but rather a carefully thought-out plan. Upon arriving she talks a local restaurant owner into taking her on as a waitress and she starts to befriend another new arrival in town, Adam.

We soon learn that Adam is not all he seems and that he knows more about Polly than she realizes. The chapters in the first half of the book alternate between these two characters’ perspectives, exploring the events that brought them to Belleville and the connection the pair form. Both have agendas and recognize that they are keeping secrets from each other but there is a powerful attraction between the two that causes each character to give up some of their control and brings them closer and closer to each other.

The brilliance in the situation Lippman creates is that she establishes a relationship between the two built upon a foundation of lies and using one another but the characters are themselves aware of this to at least some extent. This means that both characters will second guess each other, never being entirely sure if they are being played themselves. This generates enormous tension at points, particularly in the later half of the novel in which an apparently accidental death is being investigated. At the same time, the attraction between the pair feels quite evident, making it seem all the more compelling. The only question is to what extent each is being sincere in pursuing that relationship.

As compelling as this situation is however, the novel would not work were it not for the thoughtful and at times ambiguous characterizations of Adam and Polly. Although we are privy to many of their thoughts, we are not told everything about their backgrounds and previous decisions. As such we are only able to perceive events with the lens of what we know in that moment and the reader may well find their attitudes and judgments towards Polly in particular shift throughout the book as we gain more information and build up a broader picture of that character and their life.

Prior to reading this book I had heard about it from some people I know who read it for a book club and several expressed the opinion that Polly is an unlikeable character. While I do not share that experience, I can understand why some will find Polly a difficult character to love or like. For one thing, the choice she makes at the start of the novel to abandon her young daughter seems to go against most people’s understanding of maternal feelings ought to be and so may read as somewhat abhorrent behavior. And yet when you follow her actions it soon becomes clear that she cares deeply about what happens to that child and that the decision is not as simple and selfish as it initially appears. But just when you feel warmer, a new element is introduced that prompts you to doubt your reading of Polly all over again.

Personally I found this characterization to be both thoughtful and realistic, often reflecting the deep and troubling complexities of human behavior, and I was soon rooting for her to fix her life and find some semblance of happiness with Adam (even if, given this is written in a noir style, that seemed impossible).

Adam is also quite a complex character, though in his case the complexities come in the form of some moral compromises and dishonesty in the way he has approached Polly. There are times at which I felt he was exercising careful and thoughtful judgment and yet I could not escape the idea that he may sometimes be seeing what he wanted to see to justify the choices he was making.

Lippman’s depiction of life in a small and quiet town is done well and I think her story acknowledges some of the challenges involved with drifting into the type of place where everyone knows each other and their business. While there is not a huge cast of supporting characters, the ones that are provided seem distinct and dimensional, adding to the sense of place and also time (the book is, after all, a period piece set in the mid-90s). The one exception would be a character who appears in flashback sequences but while that characterization is entirely presented solely from one perspective, I think that was probably necessary to clearly establish their role in the story and to clarify how the reader should feel about them and their actions.

While the first half sets up the circumstances that bring these two characters together and into each other’s arms, the second deals with the fallout from a death. It is this second half, rather than the story trappings themselves, that most remind me of Cain’s work. In particular, I found myself reflecting on an idea he often returns to in his work, that a crime can threaten to undo a relationship by introducing suspicion and mistrust of each other, particularly when they are forced to rely upon one another. That brewing mistrust is one of my favorite parts of both The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity and Lippman proves just as good at credibly creating, sustaining and exploring those tensions. Adam and Polly are easily a match for, say, Frank and Cora.

If there is a disappointment, it comes for me in the final couple of chapters of the book. Now, I think thematically the story is wrapped up pretty perfectly and I liked that there is a moment of tension in that conclusion. Unfortunately I do not love that a key moment is not shown directly to us. While I could understand why the decision was reached to try and build up that sense of tension, it does mean that a key aspect of the story feels somewhat unresolved. Then again, other aspects of that conclusion feel thoughtful and powerful, seeming entirely earned and the final few pages in particular feel pretty gripping.

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

The Postman Always Rings Twice
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1934

The Postman Always Rings Twice is an important and widely celebrated novel within the mystery and crime fiction genre. It is a fixture on many best novel lists including the CWA, MWA and Modern Library top hundred lists. It has been adapted a number of times, including the celebrated 1946 movie adaptation, and proved hugely influential in its ideas and imagery, inspiring other works like Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread and Camus’ The Stranger.

It begins when a drifter named Frank Chambers visits a diner and is offered a job by the proprietor, Nick Papadakis. Frank is not usually one to stick around and work a paycheck but he feels an intense attraction to the man’s much younger wife, Cora, and after deciding to stay a while, the two initiate an affair.

The pair eventually develop a scheme by which they intend to kill Nick, making it appear to be an accident. Things however do not run smoothly and soon Frank and Cora find themselves under police scrutiny…

The first thing that strikes me about this novel is just how confident and direct Cain’s writing is. Even eighty-five years later it still possesses a striking raw quality that perfectly fits the tone of the story and helps to establish the main characters. Few debut novelists find their voice so early and so clearly.

Cain wastes little time in establishing the premise and the relationships between Frank, Cora and Nick, creating a compelling and tense situation. Nick is oblivious to the affair going on behind his back but we quickly learn that Cora is looking for a way out and she sees this new relationship with Frank as her answer, planning to lean on him to help dispose of her husband.

Cora is the archetypal femme fatale, being young, seemingly vulnerable and yet uncompromising with an apparent masochistic streak. There is, of course, a way that Frank and Cora could be together – they could just skip town – but she cannot walk away from the business and the prospect of getting Nick’s money. Frank knows the dangers inherent in what she asks him to do and yet he wants her badly enough that he will put himself at risk, acting almost as if he is under compulsion by ignoring his own concerns.

Knowing that she opts to pursue a more dangerous approach to ridding herself of her husband, it is hard to see Cora as a sympathetic character. We learn a little about her backstory, marrying young and working in the kitchens but Nick is clearly not a tyrant, making him a rather undeserving corpse. Instead her desire to leave him seems rooted in racism and xenophobia because of his Greek background, leaving me with little sympathy for her.

The relationships between Frank, Nick and Cora are wonderfully ambiguous at times. We might wonder, for instance, whether Cora is as mad about Frank as she appears and certainly Frank’s own interest in her waxes and wanes. This is not as a result of some oversight on Cain’s part but rather it is the whole point of the novel as it builds to a moment in which we have to question those feelings and judge for ourselves. That moment struck me as really powerful and while I have my reading of that relationship, I could conceive others coming away with a different impression that could just as easily be supported by the material.

Though the novel is pretty short, Cain packs it with plenty of incident and quite a few surprises. Nothing seems to go smoothly for the pair and there are a few significant problems that set the narrative into new and interesting directions, particularly once lawyers become involved.

Perhaps the weakest element of the novel is that it seems pretty clear where the action will be headed yet I think it would be unfair to blame it for any familiar plot elements. This is a novel that has clearly been emulated many times since being written yet I suspect it would have been a lot more shocking, particularly its ending, at the time.

This seems a pretty pointless quibble when the quality of the story is otherwise so high. I found The Postman Always Rings Twice to be quite an engrossing and striking read. Sometimes when you read a book that is labeled a classic the results are disappointing. Happily my experience here was excellent, being the rare case of a book that meets its reputation. It may not be quite perfect in every regard but the story is strong and powerful while the situations are really engrossing. If you have never read it, I strongly recommend seeking out a copy.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by blunt instrument (How)

Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

Double Indemnity
James M. Cain
Originally Published 1943

I cannot really explain how it is that I have not previously written about the works of James M. Cain. He is after all one of the towering figures of American crime fiction and, in particular, of the sort of inverted crime stories that I enjoy so much. I only realized this omission when I recently compiled my Five to Try list of inverted crime novels and determined that I would try to rectify it as soon as possible.

While I may not have reviewed any Cain works here before, Double Indemnity is not my first encounter with his work. I have previously read and enjoyed The Cocktail Waitress and The Postman Rings Twice and I am pretty sure that I have seen at least part of the film adaptation though I didn’t remember much more than the basic premise and certainly not well enough to discuss the changes made.

The story is told from the perspective of Walter Huff, an insurance salesman who calls at Mr. Nirdlinger’s home to try to persuade him to renew their automobile insurance. It turns out that he isn’t home but his wife Phyllis is and they speak for a while about the plan before she asks whether he sells accident insurance. This question surprises Walter as it is a type of insurance usually sold as an add-on during a transaction rather than one picked out by customers though he notes that it is unusual as being the only type of insurance that can be taken out on a third party’s life without their knowledge.

Walter’s suspicion that Phyllis intends to murder her husband are soon proved correct and, unable to resist his attraction to her, he agrees to help. He quickly points out some of the defects in her scheme and the pair come up with a clever plan to contrive a train accident to claim the money. They find however that the insurance company is suspicious of the death and that they are suddenly under investigation…

One of the first things that struck me about Double Indemnity was how short it is. It was a novella, published in parts in Liberty Magazine, and it can easily be finished in a couple of hours. But it’s not just a matter of the page count – this book reads quickly because Cain writes so tightly, drawing us in to a plot that moves quickly and features several significant twists and revelations.

Part of the reason that Cain’s story is able to move so quickly is that his protagonist, Walter, is not a complete innocent at the start of the story. He does not start the story as a killer but he has given thought to how an insurance fraud of this sort could be pulled off meaning when he is presented with the opportunity he does not need to be persuaded that it might work or spend too long devising a plan. This lets Cain get quickly to the action and focus on developing our understanding of his characters and the details of the plan they aim to pull off.

Walter has two motivations for getting involved in this plan. Firstly, he is excited by the idea of pulling off this fraud idea he had thought up long before ever calling on the Nirdlingers. Secondly, he is attracted to Phyllis and likes the idea that by carrying out this plan he will win the girl too as she would be free once her husband is dead. These motivations are not exactly unique to this story but I think they are strong enough to make his actions feel credible and I think they also help build our understanding of Walter’s character, his strengths and the flaws that may undo him.

Walter narrates the story so we get to learn what he thinks about the situation he finds himself in as well as the concerns that develop as it goes on. A consequence of this choice however is that Phyllis is a little bit harder to get to know, at least at first, as we only really learn the things about her that Walter is interested in.

This does not mean however that the characters are flat or shallow. By the end of the novella we will have a much clearer picture of who Phyllis, her stepdaughter Lola and Sachetti all are and how they each fit into the story. To Walter some of these developments will come as a surprise but the reader will quickly recognize that a character is presented as a femme fatale and so will hopefully be a little ahead of him.

Some of those revelations are not particularly surprising, though there were a few points that turned out to be much more complex and interesting than I guessed. What makes this memorable is how well Cain introduces each idea and element, integrating them to tell a crisp and powerful story that builds to a dramatic finish. That conclusion is potent and delivered with slick intensity.

As with the buildup to the murder, Cain’s ending does not dwell too much on exploring characters’ emotions or attempt to string things out by having his characters behave with indecision. His characters remain bold and decisive right up to the end, providing us with a powerful conclusion that I felt was an appropriate and memorable resolution to the story.

While Double Indemnity is a short work, Cain’s clear plotting, direct prose and bold characterizations make it a striking, quick read. Cain’s restraint both in terms of his use of detail and in his description of the killing is impressive and I think he does well to boil down some complicated ideas about insurance processes so that the action of his story is easy to follow. Highly recommended.

Vintage Mystery Challenge: Book turned into TV/film/play (Why)