Laura Lippman turned out to be an excellent discovery this month. I liked Sunburn so much that I ended up buying two more of her books – The Lady in the Lake and After I’m Gone and I’m also keen to explore more titles from her backlist, she seems to have quite a few under her belt.

He looks into his own drink and says out loud, as if to himself:

“What kind of an asshole orders red wine in a tavern in Belleville, Delaware?”

“I don’t know,” she says, not looking at him. “What kind of an asshole are you?”

“Garden variety.”

Sunburn takes its name from the opening scene in the novel. Adam Bosk is drinking at the bar of a rundown motel called High-Ho in the equally dead-end town of Belleville, Delaware. He observes an attractive redheaded woman, our protagonist Polly, just a few barstools away from him, all by herself and lost in thought. Her shoulders are peeling from too much exposure to the sun.

It’s the sunburned shoulders that get him. Pink, peeling. The burn is two days old, he gauges. Earned on Friday, painful to the touch yesterday, today an itchy soreness that’s hard not to keep fingering, probing, as she’s doing right now in an absentminded way. The skin has started sloughing off, soon those narrow shoulders won’t be so tender. Why would a redhead well into her thirties make such a rookie mistake?

Adam finds her presence in this small, unremarkable town a bit disconcerting. Belleville is not the kind of place that screams tourism; on the contrary, it’s the sort of place that no person will even look at twice.

And why is she here, sitting on a barstool, forty-five miles inland, in a town where strangers seldom stop on a Sunday evening? Belleville is the kind of place where people are supposed to pass through and soon they won’t even do that.

And yet strangely enough Polly has landed up in Belleville. At that point, her motive is a mystery to Adam and to the reader (“One thing’s for sure: she’s up to something. His instincts for this stuff can’t be denied”).

But for that matter, the same could be said of Adam. What is Adam Bosk also doing in this run-of-the-mill town?

Adam tentatively attempts to strike up a conversation with Polly, a cautious banter that only heightens the sense of mystery around the two.

“You from around here?”

“Define from.” She’s not playing, she’s retreating.

“Do you live here?”

I do now.”

“That sunburn – I just assumed you were someone who got a day or two of beach, was headed back to Baltimore or D.C.”

“No. I’m living here.”

He sees a flicker of surprise on the barmaid’s face.

“As of when?”

“Now.”

It immediately becomes clear that Polly is running away from something, and a sufficiently curious Adam books himself a room in that very same motel where Polly has chosen to reside. In the second chapter, we are introduced to Gregg, Polly’s husband, who is taken aback by Polly’s sudden decision to abandon him and their daughter Jani. A typical conservative man, Greg finds himself saddled with the unnerving prospect of being Jani’s sole caregiver, a role he did not take seriously before.

Things take a turn when Adam finds himself falling hard for Polly against his better instincts, and Polly begins to reciprocate. The fact that both have secrets they would rather hide only complicates matters.  As the novel progresses, Polly’s motives become clearer as do Adam’s and their lives become intertwined in a potent manner, a combination that involves both attraction and mistrust. 

Sunburn, then, is a riveting piece of noir fiction that explores themes of identity, violence, survival and trying to start life afresh.

Polly is a fascinating character with a dark, checkered past; a past dotted with violence and murder. Largely sidelined to the fringes of society because of what happened to her before, Polly through sheer resilience and instinct for survival soldiers on, always trying to think ahead. Her quiet demeanor and attractive persona make her irresistible to men and Adam, unsurprisingly, is taken in by her charms. Precisely because of her reputation of having an uncanny way with men, it’s also not surprising that most of her relationships with women are largely strained, marked by hints of suspicion.

Lippman is great at portraying the intrusive atmosphere of small town life – the gossip, the unflattering insinuations, and the conservative outlook…plus through the stuff that Polly has to grapple with, it’s also a book that subtly makes digs at gender stereotypes.

Sunburn appears to be some form of homage to James McCain and his brand of hardboiled noir. During a particularly disturbing period in her life, Polly seeks refuge in cinema halls watching adaptations of his novels, particularly Double Indemnity.

Then she found the films series at the museum, free on Thursday afternoons, and she escaped the long Baltimore summer in that cool, hushed place…The summer of 1985, the film series was all black-and-white films from the 1940s. Double Indemnity. Mildred Pierce. The Postman Always Rings Twice. Polly didn’t understand at first how they were linked, why the series was called Raising Cain, but then someone explained they were all based on books by a Maryland man who had lived in Baltimore and Annapolis, grown up on the Eastern shore.

With Lippman’s flair for sharp dialogues and the creation of an unforgettable, tough-as-nails female lead, Sunburn is smart, expertly-paced and intelligently written, and well worth one’s time.  

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