Posts Tagged ‘noir’

When a reporter tells her editor that she has a good story, she doesn’t necessarily mean good news. Often, it’s bad or sad, like the Little League team whose equipment has been stolen, or the day-old baby left at the fire station. Sometimes, it’s tragic: the missing girl found murdered in a wooded area, or the unidentified body of a woman dredged up from a city park fountain.

Maddie Schwartz isn’t yet a reporter in Laura Lippman’s compelling new novel, Lady in the Lake (Morrow, digital galley), but she knows a good story. A 37-year-old Baltimore housewife who has recently left her attorney husband, Maddie is resurrecting old ambitions to make her mark in the world. After she helps discover the body of a missing child, she uses her smarts and inside info from her new lover — a black police officer — to correspond with the accused killer, then parlays his letters into a clerical job at the Baltimore Star. But she wants a byline and sets her sights on discovering why Cleo Sherwood died in the fountain, even though the paper’s editors don’t see the “Lady in the Lake” as a good story, or much of a story at all. It’s 1966, and they figure the Star’s readers don’t care about the death of a black cocktail waitress. Maddie’s on her own in the old boys’ club of a newsroom, in a city marked by race and class.

Most of the involving narrative is told from Maddie’s perspective, but it is interspersed with first-person vignettes in the voices of numerous minor characters, from the mother of the dead woman, to a jewelry store clerk, to a veteran newspaper columnist. This diverse chorus amplifies the character of Baltimore itself and shows off Lippman’s talents as reporter and novelist. One voice stands out — that of Cleo, who wishes Maddie would leave the case alone. There are consequences Maddie can’t forsee; people are going to get hurt. Besides, Maddie doesn’t really care about Cleo, the single mother with  lots of hopes and limited options. She’s after that good story.

Lady in the Lake works as newspaper novel and mystery. In last year’s Sunburn, Lippman paid homage to James M. Cain, and her 2016 novel Wilde Lake was inspired by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, the title gives a noir nod to Raymond Chandler, but the chronicle of a woman pursuing her dreams and an identity of her own is right out of another of Lippman’s favorite novels, Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar. As for the two murders Maddie pursues, they are based on two actual Baltimore cases. But whatever the source material, Lippman always makes it her own. Lady in the Lake is no exception, especially with its killer twist. Good story.






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nightfilmSeveral friends just finished participating in a giant international online scavenger hunt that sent them hither and yon around Central Florida taking pictures of assorted vignettes, including a Star Wars storm trooper in a laundromat, a nun on a rope swing and a scuba diver in spin class. My pals said it was fun but also frustrating at times and that they were exhausted.
Which is pretty much the way I felt upon finishing Marisha Pessl’s much-buzzed-about novel Night Film (Random House, digital galley), arriving seven years after her much-lauded Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Billed as a literary thriller, the twisty narrative is sprinkled with realistic documents, newspaper clippings, photographs, transcripts of online sessions and other ephemera related to the life and career of reclusive filmmaker Stanislas Cordova and his piano prodigy daughter Ashley.
The presumed suicide of 24-year-old Ashley in a deserted Manhattan warehouse spurs investigative reporter Scott McGrath on an obsessive quest to find out the truth about the mythic Cordova, who hasn’t been seen in decades and whose terrifying “night films” have a cult following. Two unlikely assistants also play detective: 19-year-old hat check girl Nora, who saw Ashley the night she died, and Hopper, an enigmatic young man whose past wanderings intersected with the dead girl.
Pessl sets these characters loose on a trippy scavenger hunt through the Twin Peaks-like world of a Cordova film: the locked halls of a private mental hospital, a seaside mansion that hosts S&M parties, the hotel suite of a faded movie star/drug addict, a tattoo parlor, a magic shop, an antique store and, eventually, the vast Adirondacks estate that Cordova used in his films. Along the way they meet a professor whose cats are named after Cordova totems, a surprisingly pragmatic psychic, a former priest who lived with the Cordovas, a child clutching a doll-like figurine. Rumors of nasty and possibly Satanic rituals at the Cordova estate swirl like the smoke from the strange incinerators on the property.
The story zips along despite dead ends, red herrings and disappearing witnessess until McGrath and company get lost on the Cordova backlot. Separated from the others, the reporter is chased through dark underground tunnels and begins to lose his grip on reality. He is caught up in one or more of the Cordova films that Pessel has lovingly created as part of the book’s elaborate backstory. She’s a flashy, inventive writer bent on describing the forest and the trees. Keep up, readers!
“What, really, was the difference between something hounding you and something leading you somewhere?”
The book is longer than it needs to be, and some of it is utter rigamarole. I wanted more of Nora, the orphan who grew up in a Florida old-folks home, and less of McGrath’s domestic troubles with his ex-wife. I have a bit of a crush on Hopper. And one day, at least a year from now, I’ll read Night Film again. Or maybe see the movie.

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Forget the ponytails and the nail polish. Look past the lip gloss and the glitter brows. It’s just war paint. The cheerleaders in Megan Abbott’s terrific new novel, Dare Me, are really girl gladiators in training, with fierce hearts and dangerous obsessions.

“Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something — anything — to begin.”

So says narrator Addy Hanlon, 16, as she recalls sitting on the gym floor with her BFF Beth Cassidy, who has been cheer captain since forever. Addy, four inches taller than nimble Beth, is happy to be her bad lieutenant. But then the squad gets a new coach, 27-year-old Colette French, who isn’t satisfied with sloppy chorus-line flips and pom-pom shakes. She collects the girls’ cell phones, makes them run bleacher splints, says they don’t need a captain.

Still, Beth, with her clenched jaw, isn’t one to cede power lightly. She watches as Coach drills the girls into a more precise and cohesive team, and notes how many now compete for her attention. A favored few are invited to her ranch-style house, where they meet her harried husband and toddler daughter. Addy finds herself singled out for Coach’s confidences, but her loyalties are tested when she becomes privy to the older woman’s affair with a local military recruiter. Then there’s a suicide. Or is it murder?

Addy is scared. Of what she knows and doesn’t know. And also of what manipulative Beth knows, or pretends to know. “Coach, Coach,” Addy thinks. “I wanted to be a part of your world, but I didn’t know your world was this.”

As in last year’s The End of Everything, Abbott is very good at mining the secret lives of girls, the intense friendships and rivalries, the hidden fears and vulnerabilities, the peer pressure, the paranoia.  The last half of the novel unfolds like a fevered dream.  Dare Me dares you to stop reading.

Open Book: I bought the e-book of Megan Abbott’s Dare Me (Little, Brown). The term “cheerleader noir” isn’t original; I think it goes back to the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And that reminds me that I don’t really like Dare Me’s cover, which is too much like HBO’s True Blood. Here’s a thumbnail of the UK cover; I like it better, even if it reminds me of the TV series Bunheads.

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Lately it seems as if everything I read reminds me of another book or author. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it often leads to playing a favorite game of “This and That.” You know:  “If you like this, then you should read that.” Or vice-versa.

To wit, if you like Kate Atkinson’s crime fiction, then you should read Emily St. John Mandel’s elegantly constructed new novel The Lola Quartet (Unbridled, publisher’s galley). Mandel offers episodic scenes with no readily apparent connection — a young woman with a baby on the run, high school seniors playing jazz in a truck bed in the hot South Florida night, a New York reporter fictionalizing facts. At the center of this jigsaw-puzzle plot is a photograph of a 10-year-old girl that resembles reporter Gavin’s adult sister and has the same last name as his high-school sweetheart. Returning to Florida’s suburban sea of foreclosed houses and lost dreams, Gavin’s search for the little girl leads to encounters with his past and the other members of his student jazz ensemble, all now coping with degrees of disappointment. Mandel’s noir tale is both perceptive and evocative as Gavin plays gumshoe in the sultry heat, not realizing that his well-intentioned quest has unleashed dangerous consequences.

If you enjoy Kate Morton’s historical novels such as The Distant Hours and The Forgotten Garden, then check out Katherine Webb’s The Unseen (Morrow, paperback review copy). Inspired by the infamous British fairy photograph hoax of 1917, Webb’s engaging tale unfolds as dual narratives. In 1911 Berkshire, the Rev. Albert Canning and his naive wife Hester welcome two strangers to their home — Cat Morley, the new maid with suffragette leanings and a tainted past, and Robin Durrant, a spiritualist looking for dryads in the nearby water meadows. In 2011, reporter Leah travels to the village while researching the identity of a World War I veteran who saved two mysterious letters hinting at 1911’s secret tragedy. But of course . . .

Now, if you can’t get enough of the true-life story of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, and/or the lush period details of  Downton Abbey or The King’s Speech, historian Juliet Nicolson’s Abdication (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley) may be just the thing. As the royal romance unfolds in 1936, Nicolson focuses on fictional characters caught up in the wake of the manipulative Wallis, “a woman with an unnaturally wide smile, a doll-like body, high little shoulders and a perfectly enormous head.” Evangeline Nettleton, a clumsy American spinster, is a girlhood friend of Mrs. Simpson, and her attempts to fit in with the royal entourage are cringe-inducing. In stark contrast, 19-year-old May Archer, recently arrived from the West Indies and living with Jewish relatives, forges an independent path as the chauffeur of a MP. No wonder she is attracted to a leftist Oxford student. Nicolson is a better historian than novelist, so her sudsy plot plays out against a fascinating factual tapestry.

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