“It creates a whole new category…’femme noir’.”
I can’t accuse a publisher of well-intentioned marketing hyperbole, since the quote comes from a Wall Street Journal review of Laura Lippman’s 2018 novel Sunburn.
Not that Lippman’s neo-noir homage to fellow Baltimore writer James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce isn’t ‘femme noir’, because it certainly is, but only that writers like Sara Gran, Vicki Hendricks, Megan Abbott and quite a few others might rightfully argue that ‘femme noir’ has been thriving for more than a couple decades before Sunburn’s release a little over a year ago. So lets agree that Lippman’s novel – and really, her entire body of work, including the essential Tess Monaghan detective series – builds on, enriches and strengthens the continually expanding ‘femme noir’ category.
Sunburn had been on my end table’s ‘to-be-read’ pile longer than it deserved till an Anna Holmes Topic interview link from Lit Hub reminded me that the book was still waiting for me. Holmes’ interview, “The Accidental Crime Novelist” (link below) covers a lot of ground with the writer, including her transition from reporter to writer and the genesis of the initial Tess Monaghan detective novel, which in a way mirrored Lippman’s own career path at that time, to her thought-provoking remarks about where the mystery/crime fiction genre is — and has been — and its peculiar (and overdue for reassessment) reliance on women as anonymous victims. Consider Holmes’ excellent interview a companion piece to Laura Lippman’s own January 2019 Topic.com Monologue, “The Problem With Dead Women” (link also below).
Lippman’s one of those writers who unintentionally makes me (and many others, no doubt) feel woefully inadequate and ready to delete all works-in-progress from my computer. There are masters of language who can write with an economy of words, yet somehow choose the right words all the time. Is it magic, God-given talent, or the result of endless editing and rewriting to purge all the fluff and writerly nonsense? Presumably, it’s some combination of all three. Sunburn is a prime example of this skill at work. Just shy of halfway through, I’d be challenged to point out an unnecessary paragraph, wasted phrase or random word that could’ve been deleted. Yet, every word is precisely the right word. Doing just that is what I aspire to.
Some online reviews have whined about Sunburn’s pace or complained that it takes too long to get going, but I think they miss the point. ‘Noir’, whether ‘neo-noir’, ‘femme noir’ or any other sub-category of this ever-expanding thing we call ‘Noir’ isn’t necessarily the same as mystery. It often includes a mystery, just as it may include private eyes, cops, crooks, femmes fatales and murders or other sundry forms of mayhem. But there doesn’t have to be a body discovered by the end of the first chapter or a colorfully quirky investigator on hand to solve the crime. Holmes deftly draws that from Lippman in her interview. So many of the best writers working in Mystery’s various sub-categories know it well, as Lippman clearly does.
You’re probably more on top of new releases than I am, so I’ll bet you read Laura Lippman’s Sunburn months ago. Even so, do check out Anna Holmes interview with the writer, and Lippman’s Topic.com monologue.