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
Ecco, 978-0-06-242970-4, hardcover (also available as an ebook, an audio book, and on Audible), 208 pgs., $25.99
April 12, 2016
“Houston was always flooding, the whole city built atop paved wetlands. The storm kept the sky dark, and the streetlights glowed through the morning. I stepped into my rubber boots and splashed to the barbecue shack around the corner.”
When Charlotte Ford returns to her apartment with her brisket and beer, Detective Ash is waiting on the landing to tell her that Danielle, her friend since high school, has been found bludgeoned to death in a seedy motel room. Danielle and her mother, Sally, have been estranged for years but Sally has recently contacted Charlotte, offering her a $1,000 bribe for Danielle’s phone number, so she could tell Danielle about an inheritance. Charlotte has met Danielle for a drink just a few days before her death to tell her about Sally and offer her half the money.
Charlotte has thought Danielle’s stint in prison had finally cured her of the drugs and her future looked brighter, even if she has been “modeling” in porn films with her new friends. As Charlotte simultaneously searches for answers and tries to escape her feelings with vodka that “tasted like air-conditioning, crisp and clean” and cocaine like “fluorescent light in my bloodstream,” she moves ever closer to the killer and becomes a target herself.
Sunset City, poet Melissa Ginsburg’s first novel, is a soulful, sexy, dangerous noir. In all good noir the location is an essential character in the story—and Houston’s slippery underbelly fits the bill. It’s all here: the bayous, ship channel refineries, Memorial Park, River Oaks, Montrose, Rudyard’s, and, always, real estate, in a city “that never stopped, it reached and reached,” where money exerts a “gravitational pull.” Ginsburg’s simple plot allows atmosphere to suffuse the story. You’ll feel the humidity on your upper lip and see the vivid, chemical sunsets for which the book is named.
Charlotte, the most fully developed character, is sympathetic but frustrating in her self-destruction, as if she wants to beat someone else to the punch, feeling like “a poison I couldn’t stop swallowing.” She comes undone in the immediate aftermath of Danielle’s murder, on a drug and booze-soaked mental flight, trying to numb her grief. Ginsburg writes one of the best altered states I’ve ever read, both darkly humorous and melancholy, when Charlotte ends up in the drunk tank and it becomes “clear that someone, at some point during the night, had made a bad decision.”
As befits a poet, Ginsburg is a master of the startlingly evocative turn of phrase. Charlotte’s first-person narrative is littered with them. She observes of a man in a bar that she’s not particularly interested in: “He was boring, but I didn’t mind, because his attention was interesting.” Detective Ash “stared at me like you would a sculpture, without caring what it thought.” After viewing crime-scene photos, Charlotte observes that Danielle’s “fake boobs sat on top of the wrecked body, intact, pointing the wrong way.” Talk about verisimilitude.
Ginsburg presents a menu of suspects and drops clues nonchalantly—expertly—as if she’s writing a fifth noir, not a first. She has created a page-turner with a pitch-perfect conclusion. Sunset City is poetry noir.
Originally published in Lone Star Literary Life.
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.
Sunset City is a tour de force in noir fiction. Grity, dark and full of secrets, it is a very well written debut novel.
I don’t tend to read many novels that fall into the noir genre if I’m honest, they just aren’t something I would pick up normally. However, after reading Sunset City I would definitely be interested in reading more.
Melissa Ginsburg writes exceptionally well, capturing those years in your twenties where you are essentially coasting through life with no definitive aim as such. Charlotte is the epitome of this. Casual drug use, drinking and sex feature heavily in Sunset City, but it’s not overdone in any way.
Dealing with the murder of one of her friends, with whom she had recently reconnected, causes Charlotte to question if she was the reason for Danielle’s death. In the aftermath of this, Charlotte immerses herself into Danielle’s life, and this leads her further down the rabbit hole of excess.
The author has done a great job capturing the inertia of life, even in a city as large as Houston. It was very easy to identify with Charlotte’s frustrations, and her reactions in the course of the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in her world.
Sunset City is a superb debut. I devoured it fairly quickly as I was unwell so I was thankful to have a great book for company. Melissa Ginsburg is definitely an author to watch out for, I can see her doing so well if this is her debut!
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.
While I primarily read crime fiction, I'm not wedded to the genre. I read and review books from across the spectrum - horror, crime (obviously), literature. And to be honest I don't always understand the distinction. A number of so called literature novels have a crime at their heart. One could think of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. But what about Aravand Adiga's Booker nominated White Tiger, the protagonist of which murders his boss? Or Mohammed Hanif’s The Case of Exploding Mangoes, which focuses on the shenanigans surroundings the mysterious death of Pakistan's President Zia, and speculates as to his assassination? Then there are crime novels which appear more literary, in which mold I would place Sunset City.
For to me, Melissa Ginsberg has penned a contemplation to loss, bereavement, regret. There is a crime at the centre of this tale, the death of the protagonist's best friend, Danielle Reeves, a charismatic woman who fell into drugs and the underbelly of vice in Houston, Texas. And the blurb promises us an investigation, hints that our protagonist, Charlotte Ford, will immerse herself in this world to get to the truth. But this is misleading. For what Charlotte really does over 250 odd pages, is struggle to understand the life Danielle lived. Charlotte is equal parts fascinated by her friend’s life and appalled by the manner in which she died, falling in with Danielle’s equally alluring but anguished stripper friend, Audrey. In this twilight world of sordid adult entertainment, Charlotte meets an unwholesome cast of pornographers, drugs dealers and addicts.
But at no point does Charlotte actively investigate Danielle’s murder, which in the main occurs "off page". She meets with the officer leading the investigation, Detective Ash. She conveys leads to him, much of which turn out to be correct, but she picks these up quite by accident through her normal interactions with people from Danielle’s world.
Here then is the strength of Sunset City. In Charlotte Ford we have a regular and three dimensional woman. She has no super powers of deduction, no unarmed combat prowess, or experience of firearms. She doesn't doggedly pursue villains or bring outlaws to justice. Rather she reacts as any one of us might in such extraordinary circumstances, with bewilderment, sorrow and tribulation. She struggles to understand how this could have happened to someone so full of life as Danielle and it is this sense of despondency that drives the narrative.
In some ways Charlotte is a curiously passive character, but only if the reader were to judge Sunset City against other, more traditional, crime novels. And this here is my problem with the book. It's not that it's a bad read, it isn't, it's actually very good. But it's been miscast. My concern is that marketed as it is as a crime novel, those readers seeking such a book will find themselves disappointed. Where this really belongs is on the literature shelves where it would shine. For Mellissa Ginsberg has written a powerful meditation on how an ordinary woman faces emotional turmoil in the face of a horrific murder which ruptures the equilibrium of her world.