Laura Lippman’s new stand-alone, Sunburn, carries the patina of noir in its character-driven story where she shows her strength at observing humans in all their tawdry glory.

At once realistic, this is book set in the mid-90s is about the lies we tell each other as much as the lies we tell ourselves. A fan of Anne Tyler, Lippman pays homage to her with a reference to her book Ladder of Years, which the central figure, Polly, has heard everyone talking about in her Baltimore neighborhood. Polly develops her own plan, and you will think you know what it is, but the plan changes according to her needs.

She decides to simply walk away from her second husband and young daughter on a beach day, getting a ride to the small town of Bellevue, Delaware, where she finds work as a waitress in a bar-cafe that’s seen better days, as has most of the small town.

It’s here that Polly meets the central characters who will form the plot of the book: Adam, a handsome stranger who is keeping his own secrets, and Cath, the long-time waitress at the cafe who becomes jealous of the slender red-head who beguiles women.

Having learned how to be quiet, Polly is an enigma to Adam, and their relationship will rise and fall on her ability to be different from other woman as she keeps her own counsel. One thing Polly has learned is that she’s lousy at picking husbands–until she meets Adam.

When a possible murder rears its ugly head, there will be heartbreaking plot twists for all of the characters, as Polly keeps trying to leave her past behind her.

Another idol of Lippman’s is James M. Cain, and with its fear of betrayal at its heart, this is as stylish as his Double Indemnity. Exploring the idea of a woman walking out on her child is a thread here, too, and how reactions to this once its learned about are different because Polly is the mother. Readers will find themselves asking if the ends justify the means, but they will come to see that Polly has realized that to save her child, she first needs to save herself.

An accomplished and literate psychological suspense novel from a master of the genre who certainly knows people inside and out. Highly recommended.