Review March 2018 – Sunburn – Laura Lippman


It’s 1995. Polly Costello walks away from her husband and daughter, and appears in the small town of Belleville, Delaware. She secures a part-time job as a waitress in a bar, but it isn’t long before Gregg, her abandoned husband, finds her with the aid of a PI. He comes into the bar and confronts Polly (whom he knew as Pauline), expecting her to capitulate and return home. But she coolly tells him in front of everyone that she won’t be coming home. Angrily, he storms off.

But he isn’t the only man looking for Polly. Another PI arrives in town, this one having been instructed to keep an eye on her and see if she shows any sign of having a lot of money. Adam fortunately secures a job as chef in the same bar as Polly. But when it comes to money, Polly lives frugally, in a bare apartment with ancient appliances and cheap stuff from auctions – and that’s how she seems to like it. Soon Adam is sleeping with her…and falling in love. He begins to worry about the intentions of the man who employed him, and resigns from his PI job, deciding to protect her from any danger. But Polly has a past filled with secrets and different names – and many of these secrets she’d prefer to keep hidden.

This book was, according to Laura Lippman, inspired by the work of James M. Cain – Double Indemnity; Mildred Pierce; The Postman Always Rings Twice. We are constantly unsure of Polly’s motivations – is she a good girl who got caught up in some bad situations? Or is she a scheming seductress, capable of murder?

This novel kept me guessing like no book I’ve read, mainly because Polly is such a cipher. She is ruthless when it comes to getting what she wants, and hell mend anyone who gets in her way, as Cath, the other waitress in the bar, who had been seeing Adam previously and was jealous of Polly, finds out. And she’s as sharp as tack as well as being cold as ice when need be – a typical Cain femme fatale. I found myself constantly flip-flopping over my opinion of Polly – is she a wicked woman, or a desperate one? And does she really love Adam – or is she just using him; keeping him sweet? And why would anyone think she had money when she lives so frugally – where did that idea come from?

There’s amusement as Polly and Adam dance around each other, having to be careful they don’t mention something to the other that they shouldn’t actually know; what they’ve found out through digging into their respective past. Because naturally, knowing a powerful, smart and rich man who thinks she has money is looking for her, Polly makes Adam as a PI. But if there’s anything Polly’s good at, it’s manipulating men. With her striking red hair and pale skin that burns, she knows how to turn heads and get men to do what she wants. Really, though, it’s all she has, and she has no choice but to use it to ensure her plan comes to fruition. Adam, convinced the money lead is a timewaster, and worried about her safety, resigns his PI job to throw his lot in with her. But is this a wise move, given Polly’s history?

This is without question one of the best – and most finely balanced – books I’ve read for a long time. All of the characters are so believable, little details that are often come into play later in the My – typical Lippman, a writer I’ve been reading for years (I used to have to buy her books from the US, as I could never find them in the UK!) and one who is only getting better and better. Much as I love the Tess Monaghan books, Laura’s standalones are really outstanding – last year’s Wilde Lake and And When She Was Good are two I’d particularly recommend. I didn’t think she could top Wilde Lake, but Sunburn may just edge it. What a wonderful writer she is – when I see she has a new book coming out I get a frisson of excitement that I don’t get with many writers (Don Winslow; James Lee Burke; Dennis Lehane; George Pelecanos; Michael Connelly; Adrian McKinty to start with, since you (didn’t) ask.) If you like Lippman, you’ll adore Sunburn. Similarly if you enjoy Cain’s work, or the films of his novels, or any such old “femme fatale” noirish movies, then Sunburn is for you.


With thanks to Sophie Portas and all at Faber & Faber for the review copy. This is an unbiased review.

BLURB: What kind of woman walks out on her family? Gregg knows. The kind of woman he picked up in a bar three years ago precisely because she had that kind of wildcat energy.

And now she’s vanished – at least from the life that he and his kid will live. We’ll follow her, to a new town, a new job, and a new friend, who thinks he has her figured.

So who is this woman who calls herself Polly? How many times has she disappeared before? And who are the shadowy figures so interested in her whereabouts?

Laura Lippman’s brilliant new novel – Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years as if written by James M. Cain – will ensnare you in the life of one of crime fiction’s most unforgettable heroines.

Blue Night – Simone Buchholz & translated by Rachel Ward


Now this is an extremely difficult pick, but I think this may be one of my favourite Orenda titles yet – definitely top ten, although Six Stories remains very close to my heart. And that’s a rather controversial statement when you look at their superb, classy backlist. Blue Night was originally a German book, where it was, unsurprisingly, no. 1 for months, and is set in Hamburg, which has the same chilly weather as we’re used to from much of Orenda’s ScandiNoir list. The author uses the cloud movement and the weather to great effect in portraying the northern port, where the criminal underworld is controlled by an Albanian, now more-or-less respectable. But some police have long memories, and one officer, Haller, bears a grudge that goes back years.

Our main character is Chastity Riley, a public prosecutor who’s been sidelined after a botched operation, as well as for revealing her superior was corrupt. You’d think that would earn her brownie points, but she’s buried in a tiny office and put in charge of witness protection. Riley has a great voice – truly one of the most original I’ve read in a long time.

In one of her fairly routine witness protection gigs she comes across a man who’s clearly moved on the wrong side of the law. But, perhaps in an attempt at absolution, he reveals details of a synthetic drug headed from the East and set to pass through Hamburg, flooding the West. I actually watched a Stacey Dooley (we love her!) documentary on this particular drug, which is ubiquitous in Poland, the Ukraine, and very probably Russia. It’s particularly foul, and the making of it involves gasoline. Users have a 2-3 year lifespan. The fact that it’s a fraction of the price of heroin is the main reason for it’s popularity.

So Riley and crew find themselves in the middle of a huge drug smuggling operation. It’s pacy, exciting stuff.

The cliché that Germans have no sense of humour can be wiped out by this novel (although the towels/sunbeds one will probably remain intact…) The author has a distinctive, witty, almost quirky voice which has been wonderfully translated by Rachel Ward. There are also snippets and suggestions of a fascinating back story for our heroine, Chastity Riley, a public prosecutor with an unusual group of friends – some with slightly shady pasts, including her boyfriend, who are now on the straight-and-narrow – although it seems we’ll have to wait for future novels to get all the skinny on her history. Personally, I can’t wait.

The book also has an intriguing layout, with small contributions from most characters, although Riley dominates the storyline. Hamburg is wonderfully portrayed as a character itself – it really makes you want to visit, as a book set in a place the author truly loves does. (Laura Lippman does it to me with Baltimore too.) It’s a rapid read, which really gets a grip of you.

I adored everything about this book – I loved Riley, the policemen she works alongside, her quirky group of friends (and luscious sounding younger boyfriend) – all of them really original and well-drawn. So I guess all I can say is, please hurry up with no.2!

Absolutely unmissable!

BLURB: After convicting a superior for corruption and shooting off a gangster’s crown jewels, the career of Hamburg’s most hard-bitten state prosecutor, Chastity Riley, has taken a nose dive: she has been transferred to the tedium of witness protection to prevent her making any more trouble. However, when she is assigned to the case of an anonymous man lying under police guard in hospital – almost every bone in his body broken, a finger cut off, and refusing to speak in anything other than riddles – Chastity’s instinct for the big, exciting case kicks in. Using all her powers of persuasion, she soon gains her charge’s confidence, and finds herself on the trail to Leipzig, a new ally, and a whole heap of lethal synthetic drugs. When she discovers that a friend and former colleague is trying to bring down Hamburg’s Albanian mafia kingpin single-handedly, it looks like Chas Riley’s dull life on witness protection really has been short-lived… Fresh, fiendishly fast-paced and full of devious twists and all the hard-boiled poetry and acerbic wit of the best noir, Blue Night marks the stunning start of a brilliant new crime series, from one of Germany’s bestselling authors.

I received a copy of this novel from Anne Cater and Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books. This does not affect my review of the book, which reflects my unbiased opinion.

Cursed – Thomas Enger & translated by Kari Dickson


After finally seeing off my yearly personal black dog (I’m sure some other bloggers and writers can sympathise), I’m delighted to be back after too long a hiatus. Apologies to all, and I’m doing well catching up on my reading backlist. I simply couldn’t seem to concentrate for any length of time – it’s often like that in winter, the one time curling up with a good book is usually most appealing.

Anyway, to the books. Let’s start with Cursed. No surprises here – it’s another belter from Orenda. Then again, who wouldn’t want to write for the lovely, kind Karen Sullivan?!

This is technically no.4 in the Henning Juul series (although the other books are available in translation from another publisher.) But those of you who worry about reading a series from the very start, please don’t, because it’s pretty simple to pick up the back story.

Our main character (and hero), Juul, is a journalist, as is his ex-partner Nora, who’s now in a relationship with Juul’s best friend, and colleague, Iver. She’s also pregnant with his child (not at all awkward then…) However one can’t help feeling her and Juul are better suited, and we root for the still-close couple. But the tragedy of their son’s death, presumably covered in the earlier books, has driven a wedge between them. However, it doesn’t stop the three working together on stories.

Juul is continuing to work on the background to the tragedy that caused his split with Nora when she is approached by the husband of Hedda, a long-ago best friend from her years studying journalism. His wife has disappeared after saying she was going to a retreat in Italy, to grieve for her recently deceased father. She takes nothing which allows her to communicate with the outside world, supposedly for complete peace, so after her designated three week trip husband Hugo Refsdal and son Henrik look forward to meeting her off the plane. Except she doesn’t appear – and when the police become involved it’s revealed she didn’t go to Italy at all, or fly anywhere else. With the trail nearly a month cold by the time Nora gets involved, and Hedda’s husband feeling that the police are of the viewpoint she’s either left him and her son, or committed suicide, as an aunt was believed to have done in the ’90s, he’s turned to Nora in desperation as Hedda once described her as the smartest person she’d ever met (plus obviously she’s a well-known journalist.)

Nora has to look into the rich, successful, complex – and secretive – world of the Henning family, who began as estate agents during the WWII and became property developers. I absolutely love these sorts of families in novels, and this book dishes up plenty of juicy family subterfuge, stretching back decades. It also (quite literally) puts Nora in the firing line for someone who doesn’t want her trespassing on the supposedly empty family’s summer property. And it isn’t the only time I was biting my fingernails at the danger she found herself in (she didn’t make entirely smart choices…) Juul and Iver have to work together to follow the trail Nora has discovered. Who is Daniel Schyman, for example, a recently murdered Swedish landowner, and where does his death fit in? Meanwhile Juul receives new information regarding the man ultimately responsible for destroying his family life – will he get a chance for revenge? There are also various well-crafted and involving side stories featuring characters who were clearly in the earlier books.

I’m intrigued by, and dying to learn more too, about the complex relationship between the three main characters. Despite being branded “Henning Juul” novels, this one definitely belongs to the bold and tenacious (and very likeable) Nora.

No.5 in the series is Killed, which I absolutely can’t wait to get into (I’d have started it immediately if I didn’t have the rule of never reading two books by one author in a row – I’m afraid it’ll spoil my perspective. Is that weird?) This book really got me reading avidly again (along with Simone Buchholz’s Blue Night – review to come very soon; I’m just finishing it off, I promise! Clue: another Orenda. Another cracker.)

Although this book falls into the NordicNoir category, you don’t have to be an avid fan of it in this case, as a story not too dissimilar to this could happen anywhere. Enger’s background as a journalist – like Michael Connelly’s – allows him to tell a fluid, inventive and well-written tale, which, like so many of Connelly’s, could have been ripped straight from the headlines. I’m already a huge fan. Oh, and I defy anyone to guess the conclusion.

Don’t miss it!

BLURB: What secret would you kill to protect? When Hedda Hellberg fails to return from a retreat in Italy, where she has been grieving for her recently dead father, her husband discovers that his wife’s life is tangled in mystery. Hedda never left Oslo, the retreat has no record of her and, what’s more, she appears to be connected to the death of an old man, gunned down on the first day of the hunting season in the depths of the Swedish forests. Henning Juul becomes involved in the case when his ex-wife joins in the search for the missing woman, and the estranged pair find themselves enmeshed both in the murky secrets of one of Sweden’s wealthiest families, and in the painful truths surrounding the death of their own son. With the loss of his son to deal with, as well as threats to his own life and to that of his ex-wife, Juul is prepared to risk everything to uncover a sinister maze of secrets that ultimately leads to the dark heart of European history. Taut, chilling and unputdownable, Cursed is the fourth in the internationally renowned series featuring conflicted, disillusioned by always dogged crime reporter Henning Juul, and marks the return of one of Norway’s finest crime writers.

I received a copy of this novel for review from Anne Cater and Karen Sullivan. This has not affected my review, which reflects my honest opinion.