Written by Melissa Ginsburg — In poet Melissa Ginsburg’s debut crime novel, her home town of Houston becomes as much a character as the protagonist, Charlotte Ford, a young woman in her early 20s. Houston’s suffocating heat and dark corners, its breakneck freeways, its seedy bars and lush suburbs – a living paradigm of the income gap – are the kind of noir backdrop against which a multilayered story can play.
Narrated by Charlotte, the story begins in a terrific rainstorm when she encounters a man on the landing outside her apartment and unlocks her door in front of him – the first clue she’s missing a little something in the ‘try to be careful’ department.
Luckily for her, he’s a Houston police detective named Ash, but unluckily, he’s come to tell her that her oldest friend, the glamorous Danielle Reeves, has been bludgeoned to death. Detective Ash takes her to the police station to show her pictures of Danielle. I’m not quite sure why he needed to do that, which was just the first of several instances in which he acted not quite in accord with usual police practice.
Charlotte and Danielle attended high school and took some drugs together, but Danielle drifted into heroin and didn’t get clean until she got caught. After Danielle’s four years in prison, her friendship with Charlotte had cooled, and she started acting in porn videos.
Charlotte’s back story is handled mostly in a couple of awkward information dumps about her deceased mother, high school years, and growing up relatively poor. Danielle, by contrast, came from money. Her mother, Sally, from whom she is estranged, had a high-powered, high-paying job. What they had in common was that both of them were rather neglected – Charlotte because her mother was a chronic pain patient, and Danielle because of the demands of her work. No dads in the picture.
Work kept Sally so busy during Danielle’s childhood, she didn’t realise her brother was sexually abusing the girl. It’s a plot choice that has become a cliché and, here, is not explored for its specific impact on Danielle. Now Sally wants to be in touch with Danielle and enlists Charlotte to do the outreach. That mission puts the two former best friends in touch again, just two days before Danielle’s murder. Did Charlotte’s visit begin a deadly chain of events?
In part because of overwhelming grief and guilt, Charlotte has poor impulse control throughout the novel, and is easily persuaded into bed or cars or drug use. Because of the drugs and drinking, she’s a bit hazy about what’s going on around her and not very conscientious about protecting herself, despite Detective Ash’s cautions. The small number of characters makes it easy to figure out who the murderer is, though Charlotte does not, and you may feel disconnected from the story and from Charlotte because the choices she makes are not easy to understand.
She starts hanging out with Danielle’s new friends – fellow actress Audrey (another child sex abuse victim) and video producer Brandon. To Charlotte these people seem exotic, but the first-person point of view will limit your access to their thoughts and feelings. Their motivations and experiences are always second-hand, filtered through Charlotte. I’d contrast this approach with John Schulian’s A Better Goodbye, which provides a fully rounded picture of people working in the sex trade.
Charlotte’s life – job, boyfriend – is falling apart around her. She finds solace in watching the online porn videos of Danielle and Audrey, whose dystopian philosophy is, “If you’re going to die no matter what, you can do whatever you want. Nothing matters.”
Ginsburg attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Mississippi. In this novel, she mostly avoids literary flourishes, but occasionally her poetic side peeks through. For example, regarding the police station, Charlotte says, “Loud and ugly, the place banged against my eyes.” Ginsburg does not shrink from discussing the seamier side of life and its difficulties, which is brave for a first novel, and in future perhaps her characters will be strong enough to carry that weight.
Sunset City is released 21 April.
Faber & Faber
CFL Rating: 3 Stars