Between the Lines

A blog featuring author interviews, news on new books and author-related events around town, by CapRadio's "Authors On Stage" host, Allen Pierleoni.

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The World Of Noir Fiction Is Dark, And ‘Sunburn’ Explores All The Corners

Photo: Lesley Unruh

Photo: Lesley Unruh

Looking for a good read with a twist or two? Or three? Here it is:

New York Times best-selling author Laura Lippman’s edgy new novel, Sunburn, is a neo-noir, multi-layered game of hide-and-seek that serves as an homage to the noir novels of James M. Cain (1892-1977). His timeless trio was The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), Double Indemnity (1936) and Mildred Pierce (1941).

In a starred review, Kirkus wrote of Sunburn: “A redheaded waitress, a good-looking private eye, insurance fraud, arson, rough sex and a long hot summer—some like it noir.”

It left out a few things—murder, attempted blackmail, treachery and schemes. All are the juicy elements of classic noir.

So, what is noir again?

As a clue, in his introduction to the short-story collection The Best American Noir of the Century,” crime-fiction novelist James Ellroy (“L.A. Quartet”) points out that noir “grants women a unique power to seduce and destroy. It canonizes the inherent human urge toward self-destruction. A six-week chronology from first kiss to gas chamber is common in noir.”

Adding to that, Otto Penzler, owner of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan, explained in The New Yorker magazine, “Most mystery fiction focuses on the detective, while noir fiction focuses on the villain. Noir is about sex and money, and sometimes revenge.” He added in an essay in HuffPost, “Pretty much everyone in a noir story is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation.”

In other words, don’t look to Sunburn for a happy ending in the traditional sense. The character who comes closest to finding one is Pauline “Polly” Ditmars Smith Hansen, the cold-blooded protagonist. She’s a woman obsessed with a plan and possessed with “wildcat energy” (read: boundless sexuality) that serves her well. As the plot darkens, she warns her lover—in ironic understatement— “We have trouble, and very little time to decide what to do.”

The neo-noir story opens in a weary roadhouse in the nowhere town of Belleville, Del., in 1995, where Polly and Adam meet as strangers. Coincidence? Hardly. Both say they’re just “passing through,” and both are lying. As Adam thinks to himself upon first seeing her, “She’s up to something.”

As their relationship deepens, neither one trusts the other, and both are hiding secrets. Then matters get really complicated. Do we sense disaster on the horizon?

Lippman, 59, was a feature writer for 20 years at the Baltimore Sun before leaving in 2001 to become a full-time novelist. Her signature character through 12 books is Tess Monaghan, a Baltimore journalist-turned-P.I., but Lippman also has written 10 stand-alones and 16 novellas.

“I am generally referred to as ‘the author best known for her Tess Monaghan series,’’’ Lippman once told me. “Maybe I am, but the stand-alones actually sell far better, and it was the stand-alones that first got me on the New York Times bestseller list."

Lippman has won multiple Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, Shamus, Edgar and Dagger awards. She is married to writer-producer David Simon, co-creator of HBO’s Homicide: Life On the Street, The Wire and The Deuce. She often teaches at writers’ conferences and workshops in the U.S. and abroad.

Visit her at

Q: The publicity for Sunburn says you drew on your “passion for the works of James M. Cain” to write it. Like you, Cain lived in Maryland and worked as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. What’s going on here?

A: I’ve admired Cain’s work for years, but was dubious that my own voice could ever develop a range large enough to embody his darker worldview. Maybe I changed as I aged or maybe it was always there, waiting to be lured out by the right idea.

I found Cain when I was in college and knew very little about his Baltimore roots. But I was delighted when I found out he had worked at the Sun, and that his father was president of Washington College (in Chestertown, Maryland).

Q: Sunburn has many of the elements of classic noir, which has its roots in the hard-boiled P.I. fiction of the 1920s and 1930s. Is it a bit of a mash-up of both noir and hard-boiled?

A: I’ve always defined noir as a story in which dreamers become schemers, and the line between hard-boiled and noir is crossed when the P.I. falls for the woman he’s watching. The story is definitely a mash-up ofThe Postman Always Rings Twice and Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years (also author of The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons).

Q: Private investigator Adam knows something about on-the-lam Polly that she doesn’t know he knows, and soon Polly knows something about Adam that he doesn’t know she knows. Neither one is telling the other, but the reader finds out. A nice little standoff of deceit and dramatic irony.

A: In early drafts, the book began, “Everyone hates me. You will, too.” I wanted the reader to wonder for the entire book who was going to betray whom, and how. But I cut that line eventually. Because the thing is, I don’t hate either of my main characters.

Q: Polly’s an abused wife and mother of two daughters (one a special-needs child), a convicted felon who seeks a new life, no matter the cost to those around her. Did you have a lot of sympathy for her when you were writing her character?

A: Life has been brutal to her, and that brutality has shaped her. I thought a lot about the Polly we never really get to see, the girl in the yellow bathing suit who was waiting for her life to begin. I have sympathy and empathy for her. Adam doesn’t really require any sympathy, but I had endless empathy for him as well.

Q: Polly “furnishes” her first apartment with “an iron bed with a quilt folded over the footboard, and a metal-topped table,” an image that occurs several times in the story.

A: I think they symbolize how little Polly needs to be happy. She’s really not asking for that much. But she’s very intent on having what she believes to be hers.

Q: Cooking is your hobby, so I wonder if the restaurant and cooking scenes at the roadhouse in Sunburn have ties to your own kitchen.

A : Some. They have more ties to my friendship with the chef/writer/cookbook writer Michael Ruhlman, who helped me with a lot of the details (

Q: Adam’s a P.I., yes, but also a culinary school grad who transforms the roadhouse kitchen into a dining destination. Yet he thinks American cheese makes the best hamburger.

A: What else would you find in a diner in 1995? Michael Ruhlman and I ran a taste test at the Baltimore Book Festival. We did one version of a hamburger with American cheese, one with a moderately good cheddar, and one with a high-end cheddar. The secret wasn’t in the cheese, it was the mayo on the grilled buns. The moderately good cheddar won the taste test, but the American cheese was darn good.

Q: Is Coca-Cola fudge cake still your signature dish?

A: That and “banana cake,” which I make for my daughter. Mash up one banana with one beaten egg, fry in butter or coconut oil.

Q: Moving to Tess Monaghan, it’s remarkable that you were able to publish the first seven in the series while still at the Baltimore Sun.

A: I still get tired when I think about it. But I really wanted to be a full-time novelist. I wish I could harness that energy, that passion for other things in my life.

Q: You and Tess seem to have a lot in common, but you make it clear on your website that she is definitely not you. If you could invite her to dinner, what would the evening be like?

A: Fun, full of good conversation and food. She’s very good company. I designed her to be the most satisfactory imaginary friend, and I’ve never been disappointed.

Q: Like you, your writer-producer husband is a creative tsunami. How do those energy forces co-exist under the same roof?

A: It’s a lot more low-key than you’d think. We leave our work in our respective offices for the most part.

Q: What question haven’t I asked that you would like to answer?

A: I encourage my students to state their wildest dreams out loud, and I recently saw that (same advice) as a thread on Twitter, aimed at women writers. So I’ll share what I tweeted: I want a MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. Genius Grant). Even though I’m pretty sure that no one who has ever dared to say that out loud has ever been given one.