Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Thriller bombshell

Avalanche of words and literary references explodes from dark whodunit

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An apparent suicide, a reclusive cult film director, a veil of mist and mystery -- a sure-fire formula for a suspenseful thriller.

But this story is by Marisha Pessl. Anyone who experienced the American author's highly stylized breakthrough novel in 2006, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, would have wondered if she could match that level of exuberance, intelligence and sophisticated wordplay in her second try.

Special Topics set a high bar, but Pessl delivers again in Night Film, a bombshell full of twists and turns and an avalanche of words that makes this thriller a standout.

Night Film is a suspenseful and sometimes creepy whodunit that shows Pessl's homage to the structure of the mystery format, as well as her vivid imagination.

The story opens with a familiar trope -- a protagonist who is washed up professionally and personally, isolated and without hope.

Nope, he's not Cormoran Strike, J.K. Rowling's desperate detective in her new mystery, The Cuckoo's Calling, penned under the name Robert Galbraith. He's New York investigative journalist Scott McGrath, who has blown an internationally successful career by quoting an unreliable source in an exposé of Stanislas Cordova, a filmmaker whose movies are so disturbing they are only shown in secret to a select audience.

Cordova's henchmen pounced on McGrath's error, ruining him financially and making him the scourge of editors. At the same time, McGrath's wife announces she has had enough of his absences and obsessions and moves out with their baby daughter.

McGrath has been in a no-man's land for five years when he learns that Cordova's 20-something daughter has supposedly killed herself. His nose for news and the urge to redeem his reputation take over his life and he sets out to prove the young woman was murdered.

Along the way he picks up two other similarly dysfunctional and disconnected sidekicks, including a computer-savvy young woman.

The comparison to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is impossible to ignore, as are the hints of the Sunset Boulevard and Norma Desmond's fantasy world. The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon also rings a bell, along with a number of other movies and novels.

But Pessl is not plagiarizing; the cultural allusions are a reflection of her breadth of knowledge. Every person and event in the plot is anchored somehow, somewhere in literature, film or history.

A complex plot in an unusually long book with a digression every few lines means Night Film must be read slowly and carefully to keep track of all the clues and red herrings.

Part of the adventure in reading Marisha Pessl, though, is marvelling at how much she can muck up a character's life yet tie all the ends together at the end.

A warning to the squeamish: this story contains grim descriptions of incantations, sacrifices and macabre deaths.

But images such as "a gung-ho hair line that couldn't wait to get started" and "outbreak of cigarettes" liven up the story, which also includes healthy doses of ironic humour.

Pessl's style is wordy and dense. She does an admirable job of modernizing the noir genre, using graphic illustrations of websites, newspaper articles and posters to relieve McGrath's first person narrative, yet move the plot along.

Unfortunately she also uses italics throughout, as if McGrath were turning to the camera and speaking directly to the reader at significant moments. It's a device that becomes stale quickly.

As well, McGrath spends untold amounts of money on bribes for information and to support his helpers, without having sources of income to match, a stretch of credibility for someone in his situation.

Pessl, born in 1977, grew up in North Carolina and had a classical education, studying French, the harp, theatre and painting. She now lives in New York. At age 26 she sent out a manuscript of Special Topics in Calamity Physics with a pitch as brash as her writing -- "a first novel unlike any you will read this year," she announced.

Her audacity paid off. The inventive novel about a high school senior and her widowed professor father is sprinkled with drawings by the teenaged character. Chapters are named for the books on an English literature curriculum and the reader has to pass a final exam. It became an immediate bestseller and is now in development as a motion picture.

Night Film is similarly original. McGrath faces danger in his travels through the gritty night-time streets of New York City's Chinatown, dark tunnels, scary forests and a rural, inbred village in the Adirondacks.

He struggles to find the truth behind the young woman's death, to uncover Cordova's mystique, to acknowledge his own failings and find a way to overcome them.

Most important, he grapples with his role as a father, an integral part of his journey.

Pessl's ambitious approach to a story and the boundless energy she invests in her prose prove she is a unique, delightful talent. Tough and unsettling, Night Film will resonate with anyone who sticks with it.

Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 17, 2013 A1


Updated on Saturday, August 17, 2013 at 10:08 PM CDT: tweaks formatting.

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