“A cranky novelist ensconced in a swanky setting, railing at the idiocies of the contemporary world”

From a Washington Post book review by Maureen Corrigan headline “Laura Lippman’s suspense novel ‘Dream Girl’ takes its cue from Stephen King”:

Years ago, I interviewed Mary Higgins Clark, “the queen of suspense” onstage. One moment has always stayed with me from that night.

Near the end of our conversation, Clark turned to the audience and asked: “If you were alone in an isolated house on a dark and stormy night, what’s the most frightening sound you might hear? The crowd began shouting suggestions: “A scream!” “Footsteps!” “Maniacal laughter!” Clark finally held her hands up and announced the answer: “The sound of a toilet flushing.”…

Therein lay Clark’s genius. She recognized that the everyday turned eerie was far more unsettling than any threat from the outer limits of experience.

In “Dream Girl,” Laura Lippman shows that she, too, has a shrewd appreciation for the mundane turned macabre.

“Dream Girl,” Lippman’s latest suspense novel, is set in a fictional penthouse apartment in one of those luxury towers that have violated the skyline of so many cities in recent years. This particular lofty eyesore stands in Baltimore, Lippman’s hometown and the site of most of her novels. We sense that something is off from the opening description of famous novelist Gerry Andersen’s lavish digs:

“Gerry Andersen’s new apartment is a topsy-turvy affair — living area on the second floor, bedrooms below. The brochure — it is the kind of apartment that had its own brochure when it went on the market in 2018 — boasted of 360-degree views, but that was pure hype. . . . Nothing means anything anymore, Gerry has decided. No one uses words correctly and if you call them on it, they claim that words are fungible, that it’s oppressive and prissy not to let words mean whatever the speaker wishes them to mean….

A cranky novelist ensconced in a swanky setting, railing at the idiocies of the contemporary world. As Lippman robustly imagines him, Literary-Lion-in-Winter Gerry owes something to Philip Roth (as well as his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman). There’s the brilliance, the devastating humor, the complicated sexual history with women, and the fraught relationship with his mother.

But, a more explicit literary presence here is that of Stephen King, as “Dream Girl” swiftly morphs into Nightmare. At the end of the first chapter, Gerry stumbles over the rowing machine in his bedroom, skids to the edge of the “floating staircase” that connects the floors of this “topsy-turvy” duplex, “windmilling” down the steps, landing at the bottom “a crooked broken thing.” There he lies alone throughout the night until his young assistant, Victoria, arrives in the morning.

For months, Gerry will be imprisoned in that wind-whipped, isolated penthouse, his only constant visitors Victoria and a dull night nurse named Aileen. During that time, Gerry will be tormented by letters and dead-of-night phone calls from a woman who claims to be the real-life heroine whose story Gerry appropriated for his breakthrough novel, also called “Dream Girl.” (This plotline makes Lippman’s novel the latest of many suspense novels published this year that are centered on a plagiarism theme. I’m thinking specifically of “The Other Black Girl,” “Palace of the Drowned,” “The Plot” and “A Lonely Man.” Clearly, anxiety is in the air about who gets to tell whose stories.) Whenever the phone rings, Aileen, the night nurse, claims she doesn’t hear it. In his medicated state Gerry can barely think straight. Is he imagining this harassment? Is he being gaslighted? Think Stephen King’s “Misery” starring Zuckerman, um, “Bound.”

With each stand-alone novel she writes, Lippman triumphantly turns in a different direction: “Sunburn” was a sexy noir winking at James M. Cain; “The Lady in the Lake” (winking even more broadly at Raymond Chandler) was a superb historical evocation of 1960s Baltimore crossed with a crime story; and now Lippman has poked a toe into horror….

Maureen Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University.

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