Life has produced several new challenges in rapid succession for fictional best-selling-author Gerry Andersen when we meet him in Laura Lippman’s novel “Dream Girl.” He recently relocated from New York City to his hometown of Baltimore to be close to his ailing mother, and, indeed, she died mere days after he closed on his high-rise apartment.
A few weeks later, despite being temporarily bedridden after a slapstick-level slip from the top of the floating staircase in his fancy penthouse, Gerry is sitting relatively pretty. After all, he has the daily support of a fairly efficient assistant and a no-nonsense night nurse. Thiru Vignarajah, Gerry’s literary agent of 40 years — “their relationship has outlasted seven wives (three for Gerry, four for Thiru)” — visits to admire the new home and encourage Gerry to work on his next book. Even — though this is not Gerry’s preference — his crazy ex-girlfriend keeps turning up like a seriously bad penny with her “uncannily — uncanny valley-ily — smooth” face and shamelessly pushy neediness.
Visitors aside, Gerry is basically waiting for the bilateral quad tear in his leg to heal. He has time to consider his newly acquired view as well as to ponder his next book, although he has also been grappling with writer’s block. Then a creepy mystery — all the more chilling for being drawn from one of Gerry’s own fictional worlds — intrudes ever so rudely into his life.
First of all, Gerry glancingly notices a return address on a letter, but can’t quite place it right away. Later, he realizes it’s a detail from his own career-changing novel, “Dream Girl,” the one that made his name and his fortune. Then, a woman calls him in the middle of the night claiming to be a character from “Dream Girl.” Even more anxiety-inducing: There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of the phone call. More distressing calls follow, and a harassing tweet to his Twitter account appears, then disappears.
Just what, exactly, is occurring? By his own admission, Gerry is partially submerged in a medicine-induced haze: He dreams — or is it fantasizes? — that he’s “hanging from the minute hand of the clock in the neighboring Bromo Seltzer tower, a Charm City Harold Lloyd, slipping, slipping, slipping.” He longs for the days when “The Star-Spangled Banner” closed out the day’s programming on local TV stations and riffs on the wording of a pamphlet entitled “Your Role in Pain Control,” rendering it into a couplet “more Rod McKuen than William Carlos Williams.”
In between the alarming and escalating events in the present day, Lippman takes us on an immersive tour of Gerry’s lonely and confusing childhood (“Why were his parents so bad at even the smallest normal things?”); his parents’ tumultuous marriage, which was full of deceits, big and little; and Gerry’s failures and successes as a writer, a husband, and a lover.
Part of what rises palpably to the narrative surface — in scenes from the past as well as the present — is a life-long adherence to a certain level of self-deception on Gerry’s part, as well as in his treatment of others. In fact, in the present day, when he decides to hire private detective Tess Monaghan to investigate the mysterious phone calls, she turns down the job because she doesn’t think she can trust him: “‘[Y]ou’re sixty-one years old. … I’m sorry, but if you think you’ve gotten to the age you are, lived the life you lived, without having more potential enemies than that — you’re not delusional, but you’re not very self-aware. Obviously, the relationship between a PI and a client never works if the client lies to the investigator. But over the years, I’ve learned it also doesn’t work if the client is lying to himself.’”
Of course, Tess Monaghan’s astute perceptiveness doesn’t change the fact that some bizarre game is indeed afoot. And when events in the Baltimore penthouse take a more ominous turn, the novel pivots elegantly into an even darker — and darkly comic — crime novel.
Lippman suffuses the book’s atmosphere with literary, cinematic and television touchstones, from Stephen King’s “Misery” and Josephine Tey’s “The Daughter of Time,” to on-screen equals such as “Rear Window,” “Poltergeist,” “Gaslight,” “Columbo,” and “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” Lippman being Lippman, she deftly combines her novel’s horror tropes with crime-fiction comic stylings — think Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen — complete with heart-stopping one-liners.
The frequent bookish references that pepper the novel (“pantser” vs “plotter”; a high-profile literary hoaxer; Gerry’s reading lists for the classes he teaches) mesh nicely with Lippman’s dedication and acknowledgement pages. “This is a book about what goes on inside a writer’s mind,” she writes, “and it is, by my lights, my first work of horror. … But I think this novel was largely birthed in the living room of a now razed St. Petersburg, Florida, bed-and-breakfast, where the faculty at Writers in Paradise met for one week in January for fifteen years to drink and talk, talk and drink.”
Positively humming with the vibrancy of a slew of crime-fiction authors during a high-energy drinking session, “Dream Girl” shimmers with suspense, surprises, wry humor, and an ever-present stream of appreciations for the pleasures, frustrations, and oddities inherent in the life of a writer.
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 320 pp., $28.99
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. Follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.