Talk about books

A fortnightly newsletter by Art Kavanagh about things I’ve read

No. 23; 30 September 2021

Fugitive women: Lisa Lutz, The Passenger; and Laura Lippman, Sunburn

“You can never see anything clearly when you’re running”

Before I jump into the main business of this issue of the newsletter, I want to mention, a site for keeping track of your reading. It’s getting quite popular among the people who post about books on, a microblogging site (sort of an alternative to Twitter) that I’ve been using for the past 3 years. Many of them were unhappy with Goodreads and looking for an alternative, and seems to be the one that people there are settling on.

Literal is still quite new and is in the invite-only stage at the moment, though invitations are easy to come by. I have two left, if anybody is interested. If you’d like one, just comment on any of my posts and I’ll email the code to the first two people to respond. If you’re already a subscriber, I have your email address and, if you’re not, now’s as good a time as any to sign up. As always, I’m delighted to receive any comments, whether relating to Literal or not.

The two books that I want to write about today came out within two years of each other and are both (as my title suggests) about women on the run. They make an interesting contrast, though they have plenty in common. The Passenger (2016) opens with the narrator’s husband lying dead at the bottom of the stairs. When she makes a futile attempt to move the body, it leaves bloody drag marks on the carpet. The narrator, at this point known as Tanya, though she goes through several changes of name in the course of the story, tells us straight up that she didn’t kill Frank. He had been suffering from vertigo and must have fallen, banging his head.

But, though Tanya is not to blame for her husband’s death, she can’t afford to have the police look too closely at her background. She clearly has some kind of hold over a powerful and wealthy man who is none too pleased to hear from her but agrees to provide her with a new identity and some money. She worries that he might try to have her killed and, before long, two professional, if not particularly competent, killers turn up, unfortunately for them.

In the course of her flight, our narrator travels widely across the United States. From Waterloo, Wisconsin, where Frank owned a bar, she goes to Austin, Texas, where she meets a woman known as Blue, who is also running from someone or something dangerous. Blue eventually sends her to Wyoming, where she gets a job (for which she’s not formally qualified) as a teacher in a private school, saves one life and decisively puts an end to another. When she has to move on from there, she goes on a long train journey to upstate New York where she survives for a while by moving into unoccupied, out-of-season holiday homes and camps.

She avoids heading west until the end when, broke, weary and out of ideas, she returns to her hometown in Washington state, to confront the fallout from the events that had first sent her on the run ten years before, and to attend her mother’s funeral. She had fled, reluctantly and partly at her mother’s urging, because she was suspected of murder. Everybody from school was sure she was guilty, including the victim’s brother (who would go on to become a prosecutor, determined to bring her to justice so many years later). Then, when she left Frank’s lifeless body at the bottom of the stairs, she became a “person of interest” in that possible homicide too.

The name “Tanya” was one that was foisted on the narrator simply because it was available (its original owner having died young). She had never liked it, and happily discarded it as she sloughed off the role of Frank’s wife. She then assumed a succession of aliases. Because she’s on her own a lot of the time and it’s a first-person narrative, I wasn’t, as I read, attaching any particular name to her: the personality seemed continuous whether she was calling herself Amelia, Debra, Sonia or something else. For convenience, I’m going to refer to her as “Emma”: she had looked forward to being “Emma Lark” but had to relinquish the name prematurely.

At the start of her flight, Emma was not guilty of the crimes she was respectively accused and suspected of. In the course of it, though, she killed two men. (Although I don’t make a practice of avoiding spoilers, I’m not going to say any more about who they were.) She is in no doubt that this has changed her.

If you murder someone once, even with a tenuous argument of self-defense, you can blame it on chance, being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong name. But the next time you kill someone you have to start asking the hard questions. Is it really self-defense or a lifestyle choice? When you kill another human being in cold blood, you kill part of yourself. Until that moment, I had always hung on to a shred of the old me. I knew who I was deep down. It was different now. Ten years on the run, and I was finally the cold-blooded murderer they’d always said I was. (p. 322)

The novel superbly conveys the fear, the anxiety, the ennui and the loneliness of being a fugitive. The ceaseless worry about money, about finding somewhere to live, about being recognized. The inescapable repetition:

My only plan was the same old plan: find another mark with a vacation home and remain an uninvited guest until circumstances caused my eviction. I didn’t have a plan for money, which was running dangerously low; I didn’t have a plan for becoming someone else, someone who could exist in a real way in this world. I most certainly didn’t have a plan for how I was going to live the next forty or so years of my life. (p. 277)

I didn’t notice while I was reading it the picaresque quality of the novel. In her travels around the country, Emma meets a series of characters: Blue in Austin, a sheriff named Domenic Lowell in Jackson, Wyoming, the various teachers and pupils in the school a small town in the same state where she stays for just a few months before moving on again. There’s Sean, the bar owner and Dolores, the elderly widow on a train who recognizes Emma Lark as as the person of interest, Tanya Dubois.

Best of all, though, is Gina, the well-heeled New Yorker whose son has killed himself. Gina pays an unexpected visit to her holiday cabin only to find Emma (who has obviously been living there for a while) in her bed. Gina takes Emma for someone named Paige, who had been expected to visit the following week. Quick-witted Emma plays along, only realizing as she is leaving what the relationship between Paige and Gina’s family has been.

I tripped on the last step. Once I got my legs under me again, I turned back to Gina. Her face was as still as the stonework around her home. She saw me as her enemy, but I couldn’t return the favor. I had stolen her hospitality for over three weeks. I figured I owed her, and I didn’t have much to give. So I gave her all I had. (p. 272)

The central character in Sunburn (2018) is known by a succession of different names too, but they’re all official, apart from the nickname “Polly”. After her release from prison, she changes her surname legally, then changes it again to that of her second husband. The murder of her first husband was the crime for which she was in prison and there is no doubt that, not only did she kill him but she planned the murder carefully, knowing she had only one chance. Not long before, she took out a large insurance policy on his life and made the beneficiary their daughter, so that the insurance company wouldn’t be able to refuse to pay, on the ground that the named beneficiary was also the killer.

The daughter, Joy, was severely disabled, having been born with cerebral palsy. On her mother’s conviction, Joy was taken into care by the state and remained in an institution even after Polly was released. The Governor had wanted to commute the sentences of women convicted of killing their domestic abusers, and Polly had met the conditions. The Governor said later she was one of the women whose release he regretted: he hadn’t known at the time about the insurance policy.

There’s was no doubt that Burton Ditmars was an abusive husband. He was a corrupt cop, a fire investigation officer, an arsonist, a murderer and an insurance fraudster. Polly killed him, not spontaneously but in cold blood, when she became convinced that he would kill her and at best leave Joy uncared for (and quite likely kill her too). Having murdered Ditmars, Polly expected to spend the rest of her life in prison. The Governor’s commutation was not something she could have relied on.

To Irving Lowenstein — landlord, insurance broker and Burton Ditmars’s sometime (not always enthusiastic) accomplice — Polly looks like the quintessential bad mother. Having abandoned her disabled daughter to the care of the state, and — somehow, presumably — kept the insurance money for herself, she has now remarried and had a second daughter, only to abandon her too, before running off and going to ground.

In the meantime, as Irving discovers by chance, she has reached a settlement with the hospital where Joy was delivered, which leaves her $1.8 million better off (after her lawyer has taken his unconscionable 40% cut, plus expenses). But what has she done with the money? Why isn’t she spending it? If Irving can find out where the money is, he can blackmail her into giving him his cut. After all, he was the one that Polly went to when she was setting up that dodgy policy on Ditmars’s life.

So, Irving hires a private detective, Adam, to find out where Polly is hiding the money and, just to complicate matters, Polly and Adam fall in love, though they believe they can’t trust each other: he because of what Irving has told him about Polly, she because she knows that Adam is an investigator and who he’s working for, though Adam doesn’t know she knows and feels bad about supposedly deceiving her.

Adam likes to go away after he has finished a job, to Botswana or New Zealand or Europe. He’d like to take Polly with him, and finds it incomprehensible that she is happy to stay in the small town where she’s been hiding out:

Polly says she never wants to marry again. Yet there she is with the weekly PennySaver, looking longingly at houses in Belleville. Could anyone dream smaller? The tiny scale of her desires — Adam, a house, a bed-and-breakfast — makes her achingly precious to him. He just needs to bring her up to his level, take her hand and lead her to a peak where she can see the world spread out at her feet, imagine something bigger. (p. 229)

What Adam doesn’t realize is that Polly’s desires or ambitions are not at all on a tiny scale, they’re just so different from what he can imagine that he’s incapable of recognizing them. She has a very clear idea of what she’s aiming for, and no illusions as to how difficult it will be to achieve it:

It turns out it is possible to have seen a man’s body, a knife sticking through his heart, and still wonder if one will ever be free of him. She can’t believe she won. And yes, she considers killing Ditmars a victory. She lost almost every battle in the years they were together, but she won the war. She won that war and she’ll win this one. (p. 191)

The thing driving her is the imperative to regain custody of her two daughters and to bring them up. It’s for them that she wants the house and it doesn’t much matter to her where it is so long as Joy, who can’t walk, is able to live there. When she left her younger daughter at the beach, she knew knew that the little girl was strong enough to survive with just her father for a short time:

“Jani’s a strong little girl. That’s why I could risk being away from her for a few months. But she’s not strong enough to rely on Gregg. No one is that strong.” (p. 282)

As she explains herself to Adam:

“I figured I was only going to be gone for a few months, tops. I didn’t realize how long things would take. I thought I could get to Reno, get a divorce in six weeks. Belleville wasn’t part of the plan. Neither were you. I had so many lovely plans. I sure didn’t expect her father to fight me for custody. I assumed he’d be going crazy after a few months alone with her, would beg me to take her off his hands.” (p. 280)

She had hoped to be able to get divorced in Nevada without having to reveal to her husband that the hospital where Joy had been delivered had paid compensation:

“That was the whole point, to get out of that marriage before Gregg found out about the settlement.” (p. 279)

(At that point, Gregg didn’t yet know of Joy’s existence, or that his wife had served time for killing Burton Ditmars.) When it turned out that the process would be slower and more complicated than she had expected, Polly resigned herself, once again, to waiting. She had learned patience and quiet resolve from Ditmars. He used to torture her, choking her during sex, under the pretence that it the deprivation of oxygen would heighten her pleasure.

… he liked to take her curling iron and hold it against her flesh, demanding that she not scream, teaching her resilience until she learned to stay silent even when he gave her a third degree burn on her thigh. (p. 287)

So, Polly differs from the narrator of The Passenger, in that she did not traverse the United States but found a hiding place and stayed still and quiet. Rather than move around, regularly changing her name and appearance, she took a job as a bartender in a small town, asked to be paid in cash, and showed every sign of reluctance to leave.

Both characters were on the receiving end of common misperceptions of women’s behaviour: Polly seen as the callous and greedy mother, indifferent to her daughters’ wellbeing; “Emma” first as a malicious schoolgirl, jealous of her friend’s success, and later as the unloving, presumably gold-digging, husband-killer. In both books, the women turn out to be very different from the sexist caricatures they were perceived as being. Both killers, of course, but more interesting and sympathetic killers than the reader was probably expecting.

The page references above are to these editions:
Lisa Lutz, The Passenger (Titan Books paperback, 2016)
Laura Lippman, Sunburn, (Faber & Faber paperback, 2018)

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Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 30-Sep-2021.