The plea­sures of crime fic­tion

Laura Lipp­man talks about the de­lights of blend­ing lit­er­ary flair and in­tri­cate plots.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Culture - By MOIRA MACDON­ALD

IN the open­ing pages of Laura Lipp­man’s Sun­burn, an ir­re­sistibly noirish world opens.

Polly is a newly sun­burned red­head, perched on a bar stool in an Amer­i­can town “where strangers sel­dom stop on a Sun­day evening”. Adam, across the bar, is also new to the area, a blandly hand­some fel­low who “prefers his women thin and a lit­tle skit­tish”.

They first ex­change words in the hall­way of the red-lit mo­tel where they’re both stay­ing; he lean­ing ca­su­ally against a door­jamb, she not al­low­ing her­self to get pulled into con­ver­sa­tion. The weather is sul­try; un­sea­son­ably so. “She has a ver­sion of her­self that catches men’s eyes, but she’s turned that off for now, maybe for­ever. The only thing it ever got her was trou­ble.”

And then ... well, ev­ery­thing past Chap­ter 2, says Lipp­man in a tele­phone in­ter­view, is a spoiler. Suf­fice it to say that these good-look­ing strangers, Polly and Adam, do in­deed end up in bed to­gether (if you don’t see that com­ing, says Lipp­man, “per­haps you should as­sign power of at­tor­ney to some­one in your fam­ily”), and that they each have sto­ries that we’ll even­tu­ally learn.

And that you’ll be sit­ting up late turn­ing pages, as I was, to find out what those sto­ries are, with the brassy, weary jazz of a clas­sic film noir sound­track play­ing ir­re­sistibly in your head.

Lipp­man is the best­selling au­thor of more than 20 crime-fic­tion nov­els, many fea­tur­ing her sig­na­ture de­tec­tive, Tess Mon­aghan, and set in her home­town of Bal­ti­more, Mary­land, United States. Sun­burn, how­ever, is some­thing new; a twisty homage to the works of fel­low Bal­ti­morean James M. Cain, whose nov­els in­clude clas­sics like The Post­man Al­ways Rings Twice, Mil­dred Pierce ,and Dou­ble In­dem­nity. (Care­ful read­ers will also spot a trib­ute to a novel by an­other great Bal­ti­more au­thor: Anne Tyler’s Lad­der Of Years.)

A fan of Cain’s since re­ceiv­ing a set of his books when she was 21, Lipp­man says that the idea to write a Cain-ish homage had been “liv­ing in the back of my head for a re­ally long time”. When she be­gan to write nov­els in the 1990s – she had, like Cain be­fore her, been work­ing as a re­porter for The Bal­ti­more Sun – Lipp­man orig­i­nally planned on writ­ing some­thing dark, some­thing hard-boiled.

“But that just wasn’t the voice that came out,” she says. “My early work is noth­ing at all like Cain. It was re­ally a dis­ap­point­ment, but I ac­cepted it – your voice is your voice.”

Her first book, Bal­ti­more Blues, was pub­lished in 1997 and was the first Tess Mon­aghan novel; it’s now a se­ries of 12 works. Af­ter seven Tess vol­umes, Lipp­man be­gan branch­ing out, al­ter­nat­ing the se­ries with stand-alone nov­els where she could get “a lit­tle bit darker”.

Set in 1995, Sun­burn is, like Cain’s work, some­thing from the past.

“I’m not sure I could have pulled off a con­tem­po­rary noir novel,” says Lipp­man. “I know I only went 20 years back, but I needed some lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive dis­tance on the story.”

A novel in 1995 is one with­out cell­phones and the In­ter­net; it was, says Lipp­man jok­ingly, “the last good year (in which) to dis­ap­pear”. But it’s also set in the 1990s for an­other rea­son; one that would re­quire re­veal­ing too much of the plot to ex­plain. (Read the book and share your opin­ion at star2@thes­tar.com.my.)

Lipp­man shapes her in­tri­cate plots, she says, through re­vi­sion.

“I start with a big idea,” she says. “I pretty much knew the cli­max of this novel, but there was so much else I didn’t have right about it, par­tic­u­larly the char­ac­ters’ mo­ti­va­tions to­ward the end.”

She makes charts – “very strange, colour-coded charts” – to help her vi­su­alise the char­ac­ters and plot, and writes mul­ti­ple drafts.

“It’s some­thing I learned in jour­nal­ism – clar­ity,” she says. “I think crime nov­els in par­tic­u­lar have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to be clear where they can be clear. In a novel of se­crets and re­ver­sals and twists, you need to be sure your reader is taken care of and can fol­low it. It’s all about re­vi­sion and never be­ing afraid to tear some­thing up.”

Along with a recipe for grilled­cheese sand­wiches that I’ve been ob­sess­ing over (Adam makes one for Polly; the key is finely sliced ba­con – ba­con! – and may­on­naise), Sun­burn re­minds us of the enor­mous plea­sures of great crime fic­tion.

I read it through once at break­neck speed, need­ing to know what hap­pened, and then en­joyed a more leisurely sec­ond read­ing, ap­pre­ci­at­ing the steamy-hot yet icy world Lipp­man has crafted. Its di­a­logue has a hard sparkle, like the eyes of a noir femme fa­tale.

Af­ter nearly two dozen works of crime fic­tion, Lipp­man re­mains ex­cited to craft more.

“I don’t see any lim­i­ta­tion to the genre,” she says. Her con­ver­sa­tion is pep­pered with the names of favourite crime-fic­tion au­thors, par­tic­u­larly women: Me­gan Ab­bott, Kate Atkin­son, Alafair Burke, Ivy Po­choda, At­tica Locke.

And she cites an es­say by Bri­tish au­thor Nick Hornby, about Den­nis Le­hane’s Mys­tic River (2001), in which Hornby notes that good crime fic­tion does ev­ery­thing a lit­er­ary novel is sup­posed to do – with the added el­e­ment of a metic­u­lously rea­soned who­dunit. (Lit­er­ary fic­tion is a great plea­sure, Hornby writes, but, “You don’t walk into lamp-posts when you’re read­ing lit­er­ary nov­els, do you?”)

“I started out writ­ing very main­stream pri­vate-eye books, and my books are still re­ally main­stream crime fic­tion,” Lipp­man says.

“I’m still try­ing to do all the things that a crime novel does, or is sup­posed to do, and I would be dis­ap­pointed in my­self if I aban­doned that task. Be­cause I do think there’s some­thing chal­leng­ing and thrilling about try­ing to fit a very sat­is­fy­ing puz­zle on top of what one hopes – it’s not for me to say – is a sat­is­fy­ing novel.” – The Seat­tle Times/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

— JAN COBB

‘My books are still re­ally main­stream crime fic­tion,’ says Lipp­man.

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