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.