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Lippman's 'Dream Girl' takes its cue from Stephen King

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Dream Girl

By Laura Lippman

Morrow. 320 pp. $28.99

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Years ago, I interviewed Mary Higgins Clark, "the queen of suspense" onstage in the District. One moment has always stayed with me from that night.

Near the end of our conversation, Clark turned to the audience and asked: "If you were alone in an isolated house on a dark and stormy night, what's the most frightening sound you might hear? The crowd began shouting suggestions: "A scream!" "Footsteps!" "Maniacal laughter!" Clark finally held her hands up and announced the answer: "The sound of a toilet flushing."

The audience, as one, gasped.

Therein lay Clark's genius. She recognized that the everyday turned eerie was far more unsettling than any threat from the outer limits of experience.

In "Dream Girl," Laura Lippman shows that she, too, has a shrewd appreciation for the mundane turned macabre.

"Dream Girl," Lippman's latest stand-alone suspense novel, is set in a fictional penthouse apartment in one of those luxury towers that have violated the skyline of so many cities in recent years. This particular lofty eyesore stands in Baltimore, Lippman's hometown and the site of most of her novels.

We savvy readers sense that something is off from the opening description of famous novelist Gerry Andersen's lavish digs:

"Gerry Andersen's new apartment is a topsy-turvy affair — living area on the second floor, bedrooms below. The brochure — it is the kind of apartment that had its own brochure when it went on the market in 2018 — boasted of 360-degree views, but that was pure hype. ... Nothing means anything anymore, Gerry has decided. No one uses words correctly and if you call them on it, they claim that words are fungible, that it's oppressive and prissy not to let words mean whatever the speaker wishes them to mean.

"Take the name of this building, the Vue at Locust Point. What is a vue? And isn't the view what one sees from the building, not the building itself?"

Isn't this delicious? A cranky novelist ensconced in a swanky setting, railing at the idiocies of the contemporary world. As Lippman robustly imagines him, Literary-Lion-in-Winter Gerry owes something to Philip Roth (as well as his fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman). There's the brilliance, the devastating humor, the complicated sexual history with women, and the fraught relationship with his mother.

But a more explicit literary presence here is that of Stephen King, as "Dream Girl" swiftly morphs into Nightmare. At the end of the first chapter, Gerry stumbles over the rowing machine in his bedroom, skids to the edge of the "floating staircase" that connects the floors of this "topsy-turvy" duplex, "windmilling" down the steps, landing at the bottom "a crooked broken thing." There he lies alone throughout the night until his young assistant, Victoria, arrives in the morning.

For months, Gerry will be imprisoned in that wind-whipped, isolated penthouse, his only constant visitors Victoria and a dull night nurse named Aileen. During that time, Gerry will be tormented by letters (that mysteriously disappear) and dead-of-night phone calls from a woman who claims to be the real-life heroine whose story Gerry appropriated for his breakthrough novel, also called "Dream Girl." Whenever the phone rings, Aileen, the night nurse, claims she doesn't hear it. In his medicated state Gerry can barely think straight. Is he imagining this harassment? Is he being gaslighted? Think Stephen King's "Misery" starring Zuckerman, um, "Bound."

With each stand-alone novel she writes, Lippman triumphantly turns in a different direction: "Sunburn" was a sexy noir winking at James M. Cain; "The Lady in the Lake" (winking even more broadly at Raymond Chandler) was a superb historical evocation of 1960s Baltimore crossed with a crime story; and now Lippman has poked a toe into horror. The source is that high-rise Gerry is marooned in, cut off from the street life of the city below. In a moment sure to tickle fans of Lippman's long-running Tess Monaghan series, Gerry tries to hire the journalist turned private detective for surveillance to monitor those phone calls he thinks he's receiving. Tess turns up at Gerry's place and ultimately turns down the job. As she explains in a conversation, the reason is the penthouse itself:

"'It sounds so woo-woo, but I've learned to respect my intuition about such things. I couldn't — I couldn't spend a lot of time in this apartment. It gives me the creeps. ... I don't know, maybe it's like the Spielberg movie where it turns out a grave has been desecrated. Only the thing that's buried beneath your beautiful apartment is jobs.'

"'Jobs?'

"'There were silos here. Grain silos. There were jobs all over this peninsula. Baltimore's citizens made things. ... I know I should be happy, seeing these big apartment buildings going up. It's property taxes; my kid goes to public school. But this place gives me the creeps, big time.'"

Socially conscious (the #MeToo movement makes a decisive entrance into the plot) and packed with humor, ghosts and narrative turns of the screw, Lippman's "Dream Girl" is indeed a dream of a novel for suspense lovers and fans of literary satire alike.

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