Reviewed by TONY BAER:


LAURA LIPPMAN – Sunburn. William Morrow, hardcover, February 2018; trade paperback, July 2018; mass market paperback, June 2019.

   Adam Bosk, a Baltimore PI, has been hired to track down Polly Costello. She’s a pretty redhead, mid-30’s.

   He finds her in the High Ho Tavern in Belleville, Delaware. He sits at the bar and tries to connect. She’s got a sunburn.

   Polly’s first husband, Ditmars, was a wife-beating arson detective. Ditmars made an unholy alliance with an insurance broker to underwrite a bunch of insurance policies and burn stuff down, splitting the proceeds.

   Polly wasn’t given much of an allowance from Ditmars, so she entertained herself going to the library film series. One day, the library put on a James M. Cain series, showing Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But it was Double Indemnity that got her attention. She loved it. And read the book, becoming a Cain acolyte.

   Polly then took out a big policy on her husband, made their daughter the beneficiary, and made her husband a big turkey dinner, stuffing and mashed potatoes filled with crushed up sleeping pills, and homemade apple pie with whipped cream whipped by hand.

   That night the same hand that did the whipping grabbed a huge kitchen knife and plunged it deep into her husband’s heart.

   She was later pardoned by the governor among a slew of other murderers suffering from battered woman’s syndrome. The governor’s office did a crappy job of vetting her case (the premeditation, the insurance), and later regretted her pardon — but too late. She was free.

   The insurance broker never got his kickback. And hired PI Adam Bosk to spy on her and find out where she was keeping the money.

   But Bosk ends up falling for Polly, just like every other man she’s ever wanted, or needed, or used. And Bosk throws in with Polly, casting both his client and his caution to the wind.

   Polly is even more complicated than she appears to be. And darkness descends. Enveloping Adam Bosk and all else in Polly’s orbit.


   It’s a very well-done modern take on the classic noir tale. If anyone is wondering if noir is still a viable thing, check it out. It’s also interesting to see the femme fatale from a modern female writer’s perspective. She’s ambiguous, lusty and sexy as hell. But she’s also three dimensional and at the end of the day, you can empathize with her in a way that James M. Cain and many of the old timey noir practitioners were incapable.

   It’s a legit noir. And it’s from 2018. So there. It can still be done. And with a fresh take, too. Thanks to Juri Nummelin for the recommendation: