Marisha Pessl proved herself to be a talented, quirky writer with her debut novel, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” Her sophomore effort – “Night Film” – secures her place as a writer to savor.
Here is a thriller that is like a Russian Matryoshka doll: each mystery that is solved reveals a new one. “Night Film” is most of all fun. It’s a noir-ish caper starring a dysfunctional trio who come together to investigate the death of lovely Ashley Cordova, the beautiful, mysterious daughter of reclusive, enigmatic cult horror film director Stanislas Cordova. Part Stanley Kubrick and part Roman Polanski, Cordova is the true star of “Night Film,” even though he is really never fully on-screen, as it were.
Disgraced journalist Scott McGrath – whose career was brought to a standstill during an earlier attempted expose of the director – suspects that Ashley’s fall to death in an abandoned Manhattan warehouse is murder rather than suicide. He is joined in his illicit investigation by Hopper, a drug dealer who loved Ashley, and the plucky former coat check gal and would-be actress Nora Halliday. “I’ve only been an actress five weeks. That’s how long I’ve been in the city,” she tells McGrath.
Pessl captures the insouciance of the classic hard-boiled noir hero of the forties with ease. In scenes like this, where Nora confesses her love to McGrath, she is clearly enjoying herself – and readers will, too:
“I told you. I love you. And not as a friend or a boss, but real love. I’ve known it for twenty-four hours.”
“Sounds like a stomach bug that will pass.”
As the trio explores Ashley’s life – and death – they are drawn into a web of misinformation surrounding the legend and life of the great director himself. Pessl provides much of the back story surrounding the Cordovas in the form of website articles, password protected chat rooms, and archival materials. For the most part, this works as a nifty way to make the reader feel like part of McGrath’s team: you’re not just reading about the clues, you are discovering them yourself.
The trail leads McGrath and friends from Manhattan to upstate New York, from a mental hospital where Ashley spent time to The Peak, the heavily secured 300-acre upstate estate where Cordova has lived and worked for years, from Chinatown to the Upper East side.
Cordova’s films are shown at secret “red-band screenings” -- a riff on midnight movies that have big fan followings -- around the world, where he is celebrated as a “subversive sorcerer of a dark, terrifying world liberated from the commercial trappings of mainstream society.”
As the tale unfolds, McGrath becomes convinced that Cordova the man is as horrific as the characters in his films, believing that he – and his daughter—had mastered black magic arts.
“Then what’s this really about?” one character asks. The answer is “Ashley.” For while Pessl accrues the details of Cordova’s life – from his wives to the plots and props of his films – Ashley is the one who holds the story together. A child prodigy whose virtuoso piano performances were recorded at the tender age of fourteen, she is an enigma, even to Hopper, who knew her perhaps as well as anyone.
McGrath thinks that Cordova did things to children – including his own. He tracks down people close to Cordova, including the sister of one of his wives, who tells him why no one ever talks about the auteur:
They’re terrified. They ascribe a power to him, real or imagined, I don’t know. What I do know is that within that’ family’s history there are atrocious acts. I’m certain of it.
Even more certain is that the whole Cordova family “lived in answer”, seeking mermaids to T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
If that was true, it was doubtlessly a ferocious, intoxicating way to live. . . . But it could also be an enslavement, a hell, to keep searching for the enchanted, keep plunging down, down to the lonely chambers of the sea. To seek mermaids.
It was a tragic thing to do, like looking for Eden.
McGrath, along with Hopper and Halliday, dares to follow to unlock the secrets guarding the death of Ashley and to rehabilitate his own good name. He penetrates the network of tunnels underneath The Peak, only to find himself trapped in a hallucinatory world composed of Cordova’s abandoned film sets. The night film becomes McGrath’s own worst nightmare. Is he trapped in a Cordova film? Was Cordova:
A madman. The devil himself. Maybe he hadn’t always been, but it was what he’d become living here. But if his films were real, how easy it would be for the man to slip into harming real children, in order to save Ashley.
In the end, McGrath wants to be the good guy, understanding that “If you’re the good guy, you just might survive. “
Perhaps a little overlong, this is nonetheless a clever, original romp of a novel that’s suspenseful, tautly woven and unique. Already a bestseller, it's a book that is sure to find its own cult following.
“Night Film” is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.