It’s been a few years since I read Marisha Pessl’s much-lauded debut, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, so all I’m left with now is a vague sense of mild enjoyment and a memory that yes, I did want to see what else she came up with. Well now, almost a decade later, she has released her second novel, Night Film. Naturally I requested the library hold it for me and I dug into it as soon as I could.
Scott McGrath is a disgraced former investigative reporter living alone in Manhattan, drinking lots of Scotch, taking lengthy late-night runs, and squeezing in hurried visits with his five-year-old daughter Sam when he can. The novel opens with McGrath on one of these late night runs; all seems normal until he encounters a mysterious young woman in a red coat. She seems to be following him but once on the subway to return home, he loses her. It’s not until a few days later that he sees the news of Ashley Cordova’s surprise suicide at the young age of 24. McGrath is immediately intrigued – Ashley is the daughter of one of the world’s most famous, most reclusive film directors, Stanislas Cordova. The senior Cordova also happens to be the reason McGrath no longer has a permanent job or any kind of reputation in the journalism world. Years previously a mysterious source had called, claiming Cordova was up to nefarious things at his remote estate, The Peak. McGrath’s dogged investigation didn’t result in any interesting truths coming to light – just his being sued for slander and libel and losing all credibility as a writer, not to mention the dissolution of his marriage. Once McGrath sees the news of Ashley’s death, and the fact that she was the mysterious young woman he saw on his run, he will stop at nothing to finally get to the bottom of the enigma that is Stanislas Cordova.
Overtly, this novel is your run of the mill mystery/thriller, and as such, isn’t breaking new ground or doing anything particularly different with the genre. Pessl can write well and crafts beautifully descriptive pages, allowing the reader to almost picture the prose as a film. In fact, I think this novel would make a great movie (I’m already picturing Ben Affleck as Scott McGrath but perhaps it’s because he’s everywhere these days). It’s been a long time since I read her other novel, but I do think that Pessl seems to be cultivating a style whereby she attempts to craft unique stories in old/tired tropes, mainly by inserting odd pieces within the frame of her overall narrative. That probably was confusing. What I mean to say is Pessl uses fake non-fiction throughout her books. In Calamity Physics, if I’m remembering correctly, she uses a course syllabus to take the reader through the central murder mystery. With Night Film, Pessl heavily uses things like internet sites, newspaper articles, photographs, and McGrath’s own notes to add to the mystery of Ashley Cordova. At times it’s an interesting way to add to the story. Sometimes, however, it seems a little gimmicky.
Overall I enjoyed the novel, though it runs a little long. I find myself less patient the older I get, so nearly 600 pages is a lot to get through – especially because at times, Pessl gets a little wordy and flowery in her descriptions. The pace is generally nice and tight, however, and by the last 100 pages or so it’s hard to put the book down. There are two supporting characters, Nora and Hopper, which are also quite interesting and nicely contrast our hero. My only complaint really, aside from the length, is the end. When we learn the truth, it’s not really all that satisfying an explanation. That isn’t to say it isn’t realistic or good or anything, it’s just kind of a let-down. I have a vague sense that I was let down by the ending of Pessl’s first novel as well, so perhaps that’s her thing. I recommend this for any fan of literary mysteries.