REVIEW: A Tough, Cynical, Stylish Noir Novel that Skillfully Rewrites the Rules


Sunburn by Laura Lippman

William Morrow, 304 pp.

By K. L. Romo

In Sunburn, novelist Laura Lippman blends tough, cynical, and slightly sleazy, and mixes in an array of psychological twists, updating the classic The Postman Always Rings Twice-style crime noir.

When Private Investigator Adam Bosk is hired by slumlord Irving Lowenstein to follow Pauline Hansen and track-down money she supposedly has stolen, he finds himself drawn to this mysterious woman, a wife and mother of two.

Adam tracks his sultry target to a small tavern in the tiny town of Belleville, Delaware. Her fresh sunburn from the beach just two days before reveals she is new to this resort town, slightly out of place amid the regular crowd of old men nursing their beers. His investigation reveals that over the years, her name has changed repeatedly – from Pauline Smith to Pauline Hansen, and then back again.

In Belleville, she has renamed herself Polly Costello, and assumed yet another new identity. As Adam follows her, he learns more of her secrets and decides that she is not the greedy, needy, dangerous woman his employer described to him. She hardly has a penny in her pocket.

As his investigation continues, Adam is shocked to discover the number of tragedies Polly has survived and wonders if possibly she could have caused them. Bodies have been left in her wake – first her husband's and then a Belleville barmaid's. Are the deaths just coincidental, or is she somehow involved? Adam also learns that Polly -- or Pauline -- left daughters from two different marriages behind.  How could a loving mother walk away from her children?

Even though Adam realizes that Polly is shrouded in too many secrets, he becomes entranced by her mysterious and alluring façade.

Polly is clearly a survivor, but of what? Where has she been, and where is she headed? She skillfully hides her history, plans, and motivations not only from Adam, but from the reader.

In a twist on the traditional noir narrative style, Lippman reveals Polly Costello’s secrets slowly, like the peeling of a sunburn on that Delaware beach, expertly building suspense.  As Adam becomes entangled with the mysterious Polly, and the pair become ensnared in a maze of blackmail, secrets, and lies, the book's tension ratchets up still further -- and Adam is caught up in a twisted web of Lippman’s genius.


K.L. Romo is a book reviewer, freelance writer, and novelist.  You can find her at or @klromo.