Pessl broke onto the literary scene in 2006 with her first novel, “Special Topics in Calamity Physics,” which the New York Times Book Review named one its top 10 books of that year.
Seven years later, she returns with a second literary thriller. Like its predecessor, “Night Film” is intelligent, funny, full of plot twists and fascinating characters — and in the end even better than her first effort.
The new novel is narrated by Scott McGrath, a freelance journalist in New York who encounters a mysterious figure in a red coat while he jogs in Central Park. Later he learns that Ashley Cordova, 24, was found dead in a vacant warehouse, apparently from suicide. She, he believes, was that mysterious figure.
He sets out to learn all he can about Ashley and her famous father, the reclusive director Stanislas Cordova, whose dark films have a devoted cult following. Scott himself is a longtime student of the films of Cordova, who has refused to appear in public or give interviews since a cover story in Rolling Stone magazine in 1977.
Pessl creates this alternate reality (there is no Stanislas Cordova) and mixes in realistic clippings from the web, photos, text messages, a patient assessment form, a missing persons report and other pieces with her novel’s text. This serves as a nod to her readers’ current habits and reinforces the realistic feel of the narrative.
Soon, Scott encounters Hopper, a young urban wanderer who is staying at the warehouse where Ashley died, and Nora, a wanna-be actress and coat-check girl who has kept hidden Ashley’s red coat. Both end up working with Scott on the search for what led to Ashley’s death, each with their own reasons.
The novel is one long, intricate journey of following up clues and trying to uncover secrets about Cordova, his family and those working with him. They encounter multiple setbacks and close calls as they gradually uncover secrets and encounter even deeper ones.
Soon they are exploring the possibilities of occult activity. Scott is a rationalist who discounts such things, yet he, too, is sucked into their possibility, especially when it seems to affect his young daughter, whom his ex-wife lets him see on some weekends.
The plot alone will enthrall most readers, but Pessl keeps it lively with her keen, often satiric observations. Here’s how she describes Nora early on: “Girls like her moved here by the truckload, hoping to be discovered and to meet Mr. Big but too often ended up in bars in Murray Hill wearing black dresses from Banana Republic, Band-Aids over the blisters on their heels.”
Her satiric jabs often relate to social currents. During a conversation with Sharon Falcone, a detective friend, Scott asks about occult worship in the city. She says, “Does worshipping money count as occult?”
Scott’s attorney tells him to take a job ghostwriting a woman’s autobiography and comments on the difficulty of getting paid for journalism: “Your competition is now a fourteen-year-old in pajamas with the username Truth-ninja-12 who believes fact-checking a story is reading his subject’s Twitter feed.”
Pessl also has some nice touches in her prose. She describes “the night sky streaked with clouds that whitened and dissolved like breaths against glass” or, “the faint moans of unseen cars racing across the bridge.”
And her dialogue often captures the way people reference the culture. For example, a tattoo artist describes a certain tattoo as “a very Jerry Maguire ‘you complete me’ kinda thing.”
But on occasion her sophisticated language gets out of hand and feels unrealistic, as when a woman describes something as “like a black vein that twisted on and on in front of us.”
And, like many modern writers, she gets some religious description wrong, as when she uses the redundant phrase “seminary school.”
But these are quibbles. “Night Film” is fun to read while also raising some questions about art and our tendencies to worship certain artists. Readers will find themselves captured by the plot and concerned about the characters. And the ending, both a surprise and a kind of resolution, is satisfying.