When reclusive director Stanislas Cordova’s beautiful 24-year-old daughter Ashley is found dead under mysterious circumstances, grizzled investigative journalist Scott McGrath takes up the case in Marisha Pessl’s gothic thriller Night Film.
Cordova, modeled on cult filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski, is known for horror movies with names like Thumbscrew and At Night All Birds Are Black. His movies seem to affect people strangely and are rumored to show real violence, and he has been disavowed by mainstream cinema. A group of rabid fans dissect his movies obsessively and show them at secret screenings at night.
As McGrath and two 20-something partners he picks up along the way delve deeper into Ashley’s death, they all get sucked into the sinister world of Cordova, which includes a psychiatric ward, black magic and a sprawling, deserted compound in upstate New York known as The Peak.
Pessl, who won critical raves for her 2006 debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, knows how to keep the creep factor simmering on low while the plot thickens, but ultimately she is more interested in storytelling than scares. She interweaves the narrative with visuals such as reprinted websites, photographs, magazine articles and typed-up notes that all deepen the Cordova mystique.
At nearly 600 pages, keeping track of the novel’s twists and turns can be exhausting, but Night Film is never boring.
And some set pieces are exhilarating, including one near the end when McGrath finds himself stumbling through an endless maze of perfectly preserved Cordova movie sets, increasingly unsure if he is still investigating Cordova’s death, or inside a movie himself.
— Mae Anderson
Crash My Party
Within the first minute of That’s My Kind of Night, the opening track on Luke Bryan’s new album Crash My Party, he cites tailgating, beer drinking and a nameless “pretty girl” in suntan oil and cowboy boots — all standard modern-day signifiers for a country song.
Set to an electronically altered bass-and-drum rhythm, the song also refers to a country hip-hop mix tape, a reflection of the tune’s arrangement, which mixes banjo, hard-rock guitar riffs and hip-hop production touches.
What Bryan’s fourth album doesn’t offer is many surprises. The current Academy of Country Music entertainer of the year, Bryan sticks with souped-up country rockers and romantic ballads about how guys who like to fish and guzzle beer and drive pickup trucks do better with women and generally have more fun than their counterparts.
That theme rings out in the title song and many others, including Beer in the Headlights, We Run This Town, Play It Again, Out Like That and on and on.
Bryan and producer Jeff Stevens do push the edge of how many electronic effects they can use in a country song. But in every other way, Bryan sticks a bit too predictably with a successful formula on Crash My Party.
— Michael McCall
Tell No Lies
A race to stop a killer begins when a piece of mail is delivered to the wrong person in Tell No Lies, the latest thriller from Gregg Hurwitz.
Daniel Brasher gave up a high-paying job to marry the woman of his dreams. She successfully battled a rare form of cancer and now works as a community organizer. They love each other and are happy together.
Then a piece of mail with no return address arrives in Daniel’s inbox at work. It warns him to admit what he’s done or he’ll bleed for it. There’s a deadline, but that deadline has passed. Daniel shows the letter to his wife. They search for the recipient’s name on the Internet and discover that he’s been murdered. Other pieces of mail with deadlines are delivered to Daniel’s inbox. He must convince the police that the threats are real.
Hurwitz has a gift for creating characters and elaborate plots that start with something simple and then explode. In Tell No Lies, the setting is San Francisco instead of his usual Los Angeles area, and he wraps the story in the landscape of the region, making the city a character as well.
Menace, treachery and intrigue have never been more exciting.
Hurwitz will appear in Strongsville on Wednesday; see details below in Book Talk.
— Jeff Ayers