LAURA LIPPMAN’S Sunburn is a noir love story. An unlikely genre blend, but this is a noir that strays from type from the very first page; it’s a summertime noir, trench coats swapped out for sundresses, staging its crimes and misdemeanors not in the anonymous shadows of a big city’s indifference, but in the full glare of small-town nosiness, as though confirming one character’s assertion that “there’s no better way to be found than to try to hide.”
Belleville, Delaware, is the tourism equivalent of a flyover state; with fewer than 2,000 people, it is a town “put together from some other town’s leftovers” through which people pass on their way to more promising destinations. It is here, during the long hot summer of 1995, that Polly and Adam, two strangers with no baggage apart from the emotional kind, will meet and surrender to a passionate romance against their best interests and better judgment. Which all sounds like the beginning of a beautiful relationship, except that it’s clear from the start that Polly and Adam are keeping a number of dangerous secrets, and by the end of the summer, their affair will have a body count.
The novel is divided into two segments, “Smoke” and “Fire.” The story unfolds through the perspectives of several third-person narrators, most frequently Adam and Polly. Neither of them is particularly sympathetic at first, but as the story develops and histories are revealed, the reader’s sympathies will adjust, and while clumsy distinctions like “good” and “bad” remain muddled, the psychological cause and effect of events is wholly satisfying.
But in the beginning, it’s nothing but shadows and questionable behavior. As befits the femme fatale character, Polly has left many men in her past with cause for complaint or grudges, most recently her husband Gregg, whom she has just abandoned along with their three-year-old daughter Jani while vacationing on a Delaware beach in what was not an impulsive decision. Adam’s shade is more straightforward, predatory. A man who prefers his women “thin and a little skittish” like the deer he hunts, he is nonetheless targeting the slim-but-curvaceous Polly; initiating contact, keeping tabs on her movements for reasons as yet undisclosed. It’s clear he knows much more about her than he’s letting on.
They came to this nothing of a town with their own agendas, but both had intended it to be a temporary layover, sharing as little of themselves as possible while planning their next moves. They’re careful people, calculating, skilled in manipulation and self-protection; Polly is deliberate about the name she uses, Adam has a reliable methodology in place: “Tell as few lies as possible, that’s his rule.” And yet there’s something inexorably drawing them to each other; something more than just two restless strangers meeting by chance in a town with nothing to do, where the only entertainment or diversion is each other.
Even Cath the barmaid, who has her own amorous designs on Adam, remarks upon their oddly similar demeanors:
“…you’re like her.” “How so?”
“Mysterious. Not offering up much of anything. Not sure if you’re staying or passing through.”
In part because of this compatibility, and despite their best-laid plans, Polly and Adam decide to stay in Belleville, taking jobs at the same bar as Cath, putting their plans on hold and enjoying a passionate fling during a languid summer in a suspended-animation town. Theirs is a complicated entanglement — a standoff of a love affair between two people whose lives don’t need any additional complications. For them, lust is easy, trust is hard. Polly has been serially disappointed by men, while Adam is suspicious of Polly because he knows certain details of her past. Their liaison is a pause for them both, but it’s a tightly coiled pause, with the two braced for the inevitable breaking-off point of a relationship that can have no happy ending, indulging themselves in what is less a game of cat-and-mouse than a game of chicken, anxiously anticipating the moment when they will have to spring apart or risk mutual destruction.
Sunburn is Lippman’s homage to the legacy of James M. Cain, a fellow Baltimore native and a contemporary of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Cain’s three most celebrated works, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and Mildred Pierce, were instrumental in expanding the literary purview of noir beyond the realm of the hardboiled detective and into the secret lives of everyday people, laying the groundwork for what would become “domestic noir.” In Sunburn, Cain’s novels make a cameo appearance, inspiring a character to make a life-altering decision, and Cain’s thematic influence is felt throughout in what have become the tropes of the genre: outsider characters who are charismatic but flawed and self-destructive, loveless marriages, the dark side of human nature, women deploying their sexuality against weak or brutish men, secret pasts, nosy investigators, disenchantment, insurance fraud, get-rich-quick schemes and other alternative paths to the American Dream, as well as the occasional trail of dead bodies. In short: Greed, lust, murder, money, all of which Sunburn delivers.
And oh, that noir patter:
He says, “How long you staying over?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Every man in town, I’m guessing […] I’m Adam Bosk,” he says. “Like the pear, only with a ‘k’ instead of a ‘c.’”
“I’m the Pink Lady,” she says. “Like the apple.”
“Think we can still be friends, me a pear, you an apple?”
“I thought it was apples and oranges that can’t be compared.”
That’s some vintage black-and-white dialogue in what is otherwise a full-color noir, opening as it does on a sunburned redhead in a pink-and-yellow sundress before blazing through a wide spectrum of literal and figurative colors: the green of money and envy; the red of blood, flames, and rage; and Polly’s determination to surround herself with pretty, colorful objects all lending Cain’s gloomy themes a defiant optimism.
Sunburn requires a reviewer to be as cautious as its central characters. There are a lot of secrets within, and they start unfolding early in the book; details slipping out as brief as a thought (“When you’ve been in jail even a short time, you don’t like being confined”), facts materializing before their significance can be grasped, clues gradually accumulating until all of a sudden you’re in the thick of it. This process is mirrored in the development of Polly and Adam’s relationship. Falling in love was never the plan for either of them, and what began as something closer to target practice than courtship, with each testing the other, establishing boundaries, going through the motions of a happy relationship while working their own angles, becomes an emotional investment before they realize it.
Or does it? After all, when it comes to noir, things are rarely as they appear; all those unseen mechanisms at work beneath the artificial surface. The reader here has the luxury of knowing more than the participants when it comes to feelings and intentions, but again — trust is hard. It’s tempting to consider this a noir spin on “The Gift of the Magi,” where both characters are making sacrifices out of love — secretly risking their own goals/plans/responsibilities in order to be with the other in Nowhere, U.S.A. But is their love the result of two cynics putting aside cynicism? Or the strategic moves of opponents pretending that they don’t know they’ve been made? Is this love or is it a hunt?
Lippman draws out the suspense on that matter in a wonderfully provocative way. She presents two characters whose every move is an exercise in calculated, fabricated spontaneity, both playing the long game with their own set of rules, both with an immense capacity for stillness, for waiting the other out. Adam has the patience of a bow-hunter who appreciates that waiting is time well spent: “Waiting can be beautiful, lush, full of possibility.” And Polly makes for unusual prey, a woman skilled in silence and immobility: “If there is one thing Polly knows how to do, it’s waiting. It’s her talent, her art.” It has all the makings of a deadlock, and there’s an undeniable appeal to the oppositional romance; resisting intimacy, refusing to cave, Polly’s withholding (“Don’t say too much and people will fill in the gaps, usually to your advantage”), Adam’s aloof scrutiny (“She’s ignoring him, he’s ignoring her ignoring him”). It’s all fun and games, and also some felonies.
Polly is the cherry-red bull’s-eye at the heart of the story; she’s the target and the prize and the thing around which everything else revolves and without her, there’s no game. The femme fatale is invariably the most interesting character, but Lippman has taken her to the next level while staying true to the genre conventions. Polly typifies the coquettish qualities expected of her role, but she’s not enthusiastic about being worshipped, and she’s earned her air of weary realism:
[I]t’s not the first time someone has gone out of the way to pay her tribute. Men have always done things for her. People. And she never asks. That is, she never seems to ask […] It’s a special art, asking people to do things, yet making it seem as if you never asked at all. There are talents she would prefer to this one, because favors often carry a heavy penalty when it’s time to return them, but it’s the skill she was given, the hand she has to play.
She is well aware of her own power, but she also knows how transitory a power it is, and how not to waste it while it’s hers:
Her looks are only slightly above average, her body didn’t come into its own until she had all those long empty days to exercise. Besides, she would never invest so heavily in a commodity that won’t last forever. It’s how she is on the inside that makes her different from other women. She fixes her gaze on the goal and never loses sight of it.
The goal is never a man. Never. Men are the stones she jumps to, one after another, toward the goal.
Polly is layered and adaptable, enigmatic, her motives shadowy, showing only what she wants seen. This chameleon quality allows her to become many things to many people, cast in lights positive and negative and roles often contradictory, but ultimately irrelevant. Appearance, reputation — these are other people’s values and qualities assigned to her, which say nothing about the real Polly nursing her secrets beneath the bait of window dressing and deflection. One character observes wryly that “[s]ome people are like rabbit holes and you can fall a long, long way down if you go too far,” and Polly is shrewd enough to allow the expectations and misinterpretations of others to construct her “rabbit holes” for her. These decoys protect her from exposure while she pursues her own schemes, unruffled by the labels of people who haven’t even begun to scratch her surface. She is called “unnatural” for leaving her daughter, but is she a monster? Or is she just playing a longer game than anyone else can perceive?
“[N]o one knows her whole story. She plans to keep it that way.” And to all but the reader, she achieves her goal.