Sunset Cityby Published 12 Apr 2016
A taut, erotically charged literary noir set in Houston about a woman caught up in her friend’s shocking murder, and the dark truths she uncovers.
Before the drugs, Danielle Reeves was Charlotte Ford’s most loyal and vibrant friend. She helped Charlotte through her mother’s illness and death, and opened up about her own troubled family. The two friends were inseparable, reveling in Houston’s shadowy corners. But then Danielle’s addiction got the best of her and she went to prison for four years. When she gets out, she and Charlotte reconnect. Charlotte hopes this is a new start for their friendship.
But then, a detective shows up at Charlotte’s apartment. Danielle has been murdered, bludgeoned to death.
Overwhelmed by grief, Charlotte is determined to understand how the most alive person she has ever known could end up dead. But the deeper Charlotte descends into Danielle’s dark world, the less she understands. Was Danielle a hapless victim or master manipulator? Was she really intent on starting over or was it all an act? To find out the truth, Charlotte must keep her head clear and her guard up. Houston has a way of feeding on bad habits and Charlotte doesn’t want to get swallowed whole, a victim of her own anguished desires.
"Sunset City" Reviews
I give all the credit to the team at Ecco who avoided the temptation to compare this book to Gone Girl or Girl on the Train. It's a great book that's better than that kind of marketing. It falls right into that spot, though, and is on its surface similar to GOTT because of the self-destructive female protagonist whose world is shaken by a murder.
Noir is one of my favorite genres and I couldn't pass up a Houston Noir (I'm a big fan of Attica Locke's Houston-based crime novels as well) after spending a while living just outside the city. The muggy, swampy, money-saturated city is a perfect setting for this kind of book.
While the basic setup of the book is familiar (long-lost friend murdered), Charlotte's growing obsession with it that pulls her out of a mundane life barely making ends meet is expertly done. Unable to stop thinking about her friend who grew up rich but threw away a comfortable life for drugs, a stint in prison, and stripping, Charlotte starts to mimic Danielle's life, getting close to her friends and lovers. Following her friend's downward spiral starts to unravel her own life.
I often don't enjoy books with this kind of protagonist, someone with no direction, scenes of casual drug use and sex, that all seem to just meander without going anywhere. But Ginsburg has written an excellent book and there's always an undercurrent of suspense and movement that gives the book life. These characters feel like real people, Charlotte's coping techniques all seem natural even as they get more and more risky. The sex and the erotically charged scenes definitely place this nicely in the Psychosexual Thriller/Erotic Noir genre as well. (I love that genre, there's just not enough of it.)
Blurbs here are from Megan Abbott and Tom Franklin, and it's a good fit if you enjoy either of those authors. Definitely will end up on my list of favorite crime novels of 2016.
I did really enjoy this, and was pretty much hooked. It was very 'edgy' in that there was cocaine and sex, cigarettes, general unhealthiness and a bit of porn, oh and death. Cooool. My nostrils burned just from reading it. Was the mystery very good? Not especially, as there was like only 3 people who could've been the killer, but the writing was good and hypnotic and the noiry Houston setting felt new and authentic. Will defo be reading more Melissa Ginsburg.
Not that satisfying if you're looking for a crime novel, but not that satisfying if you want lit fic either. Also fell into that old cliche trap of a woman having sex with a woman to show she's going to the dark side - but don't worry, eventually she emerges into safe, normal, good heteronormativity.
Billed as ‘taut, erotically charged literary noir’, Sunset City pretty much ticks all these boxes, and in common with the brilliant Cracked by Barbra Leslie, explores the life of a damaged young woman in an impersonal and isolating metropolis, in this case Houston. Through her first person narrative, we observe Charlotte immersing herself totally in the life of her murdered friend Danielle, to uncover the truth behind her death, and drawing her into maelstrom of danger and jealousy. Fans of edgy, slight and sexy crime fiction in the style of Megan Abbott will love this. There’s a good development of Charlotte’s character as she navigates the underbelly of Houston life, encountering the less savoury characters that Danielle has been associating with, and drawing the reader in to a hazy world of drugs and sex, that are graphically explored in the course of the book.
This is another incredibly female-centric novel with much time expended on developing their characters, and very little development of the male protagonists, who again begin to conform to stereotype, although one or two of them would have been more interesting if they had been fleshed out a bit more. I liked the portrayal of Charlotte and Danielle’s relationship and the way their paths had diverged only to be brought back together in such difficult emotional circumstances. Charlotte herself exhibits a curious mix of strength and flakiness, that is so representative of the insecurities that women undergo in their twenties, seeking their place in the world, and being not altogether immune to the temptations that life that throw up, She was a likeable character throughout, despite moments of exasperation with her as she wandered blindly into moments of danger. I also thought the underlying angst and the exploration of the relationship between Danielle and her mother was incredibly well drawn, paying particular attention to the difficulties and jealousies that can place pressure on the mother and daughter bond. These parts of the narrative really gave a sense of depth to the book, as the central mystery of the reasons behind Danielle’s death became very obvious very quickly, and the emphasis on characterisation rather than the delineation of the plot itself led to a rather damp squib ending.
Always one to comment of the use of location in the book, and in this one Houston provides a smart backdrop to the book. In a recent interview Ginsburg, who was brought up in Houston but now lives elsewhere, says that she is almost re-imagining the city from her youth, and this is very evident in the book. The Houston we see through the different characters viewpoints and experience of it is a prism of the city as a whole, making it not strictly urban and not strictly rural, not completely moral, but underscored with social darkness. The city mirrors the moods and lives of the protagonists in Ginsburg’s portrayal of it, and this works incredibly well throughout, in this not altogether unsatisfying dark, violent and sexy tale. Worth a look.
Before turning to crime, Melissa Ginsburg established herself as a poet. This has led some reviews to label Sunset City “poetic noir.” That sounds good but I don’t know where it gets us when considering what Ginsburg has accomplished with this novel. By page two, Charlotte Ford, Ginsburg’s narrator, learns that her best friend Danielle Reeves has been bludgeoned to death in a cheap motel room. She and Danielle, inseparable as teenagers and for a few years before Danielle’s bust for heroin possession, had largely lost touch during her imprisonment and since her release. They had reconnected just a day before the murder. Danielle’s wealthy mother needed to reach her estranged daughter, who now worked in internet porn, about an inheritance. Charlotte was the only connection the mother knew to reach out to.
Ginsburg is slotting everything into place for a noir narrative, but Charlotte will not be playing girl detective to solve a crime. Charlotte is drifting in her own life, working as a barista, drinking a lot, stuck with a feckless boyfriend. She will drift into Danielle’s world over the course of a boozy, drug-fueled week. Sunset City is character-driven noir, and what poetry there is shows up in each of Ginsburg’s complexly realized moments, whether they involve contemplating the dust on the top of a refrigerator or a Houston sunset enhanced by the pollution of oil refineries and cocaine.