“If you don’t care, you can’t make a mistake.” An adult-film actress throws out this advice midway through Melissa Ginsburg’s stunning debut novel, Sunset City, confident that she knows a thing or two about life. In fact, none of the characters in this thriller could exactly be called sheltered. Unlike the porn star, protagonist Charlotte Ford has a perfectly mainstream job as a barista, but she becomes unhinged after learning that her childhood best friend has been murdered. Drugs, booze, and sex become her focus—anything better than facing reality.
The label “noir” is used with abandon these days, pinned onto any story with a whiff of violence and a glimpse of pavement. How refreshing to discover a book that truly captures the genre’s hallmarks, from the dangers of big-city living to the women finding power where they can. Ginsburg offers us all the ingredients without glamorizing life in the seedier parts of Houston. And the Bayou City has never seemed hotter as Charlotte tries to sort through the pain of her loss. Although they had drifted apart, Charlotte saw Danielle only two days before her friend was brutally killed.
Charlotte wrestles with the guilt—was she somehow to blame?—by befriending Danielle’s colleagues in the porn industry, women and men who live recklessly and with abandon. Drawn to their wild, almost desperate exuberance, Charlotte tags along even though she’s familiar with the crash that follows every high. As she becomes more deeply involved with this crowd, she puts her own life at risk.
The explicit sex scenes in this book might shock some readers, but the real surprise of Sunset City is the passive heroine. Defying the genre’s expectations, Ginsburg refuses to turn her protagonist into an amateur detective. Charlotte gets pulled into the case more organically, seemingly unable to resist the allure of her new acquaintances. If there’s a theme here, it’s loneliness—the lengths we’ll travel for human connection. What do you do if you’ve been arrested and have nobody to call?
Mystery aficionados might be reminded of Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, another compelling debut crime novel. Sunset City is thoughtful despite being fast-paced. Ginsburg often pauses to reflect on the world, or at least on her main character’s unusual circumstances: “My thoughts were heavy objects falling from a great height. They hit the ground without bouncing; they sank and disappeared. I had a vision in which my eyes retreated deep in their sockets and vanished, and I never had to see again.” This isn’t the logic of someone hoping to catch a killer, but Charlotte is more interested in escaping her pain than she is in finding justice.
Even so, she can’t quite follow that advice to stop caring. The details of the murder haunt her, and she wonders if she could have done more for her friend. While there’s plenty of action in this book, the quiet moments carry their weight as we get a fuller and fuller understanding of Charlotte’s psyche.
It’s no wonder that Ginsburg writes these reflective passages so well—she is a poet by trade, and her collections include the full-length collection Dear Weather Ghost (Four Way Books) and the chapbooks Arbor (New Michigan Press) and Double Blind (Dancing Girl Press). Concerns of separateness, of being alone, can be found in Ginsburg’s poetry, as well. In “Oversight,” she writes, “We brewed detachment /in bottles,” and that could be a description of Charlotte’s life, as well: her failed attempts at distancing herself from the world.
When Charlotte jogs in Sunset City—punishing dashes through the Texas heat—it’s hard to say if she’s running from herself or her situation. As she pushes past the bayou or the zoo, Houston begins to feel like a character also, pulsing and alive. As in all good noir, there’s the sense of the city as an alert beast, never resting for long between attacks. If her depiction of the city feels genuine, that might be because Ginsburg grew up there, though she now lives and teaches in Oxford, Mississippi.
This powerful book might be Ginsburg’s introduction to the crime-fiction world, but readers will be impressed by her steady hand, her understanding and subversion of the genre’s tropes. Charlotte might be undecided about what to feel, but it’s clear that her creator cares a great deal about the story. Ginsburg is a welcome new voice in mystery, and we can only hope that Sunset City is the beginning of a long and successful career.
Erica Wright is the author of a new crime novel, The Granite Moth, as well as two poetry collections. Now a senior editor at Guernica, she grew up in Wartrace, Tennessee, and received her M.F.A. from Columbia University.