Night Film

By Marisha Pessl
Random House, ASIN: B004J4WL2I
Kindle, 37654KB, 771 pages, ©2013

Journalist Scott McGrath is obsessed with Stanislas Cordova, a reclusive filmmaker whose frightening night films are eventually banned, driving his fans to host underground showings of new films and—in some cases—copycat crimes. But McGrath goes too far when he states on live television that Cordova is a predator in the same league as Charles Manson, and calls for the filmmaker’s termination. One lawsuit, a lost career, and a divorce later, McGrath is adrift, his wallet much lighter but his fixation still intact.

Years later, a shocking text from an old friend informs McGrath that Cordova’s daughter Ashley was found dead, an apparent suicide. McGrath can’t help himself. He begins to snoop once more through the tangled underworld that is Cordova’s life. As rumors lead to clues and clues to witnesses, the filmmaker’s darkness begins to overtake the journalist’s life until McGrath begins to think Cordova may not be satisfied taking just McGrath’s money. This time, McGrath may lose his life.

I love a good mystery, and Marisha Pessl’s Night Film delivered. The more I read, the deeper I was drawn in, down twists and dark alleys of the many-layered underworld of Cordova until it got difficult to put the book down at all. Every time McGrath thought he had it figured out, some new twist would trip him up or some new evidence, clue, or rumor would come to light. Each witness tells the truth as they saw it, but as McGrath knows all too well, Cordova is really good at obscuring his tracks with misleading information. McGrath doesn’t know who to believe. All he can do is keep following the trail, and hope to find out what really happened to Ashley, and what part Cordova played in her tragic demise.

As an added element of realism, the book is sprinkled with graphics of news clippings, magazine articles, photos of victims or witnesses, pages from police files, ads torn from newspapers, etc. Each and every one added hints and clues, all of which lent plausibility to the story. The overall effect made me feel like I was truly part of a real-life investigation.

Much of the story takes place in New York City. While I’m not a resident of NYC, and haven’t even spent a great deal of time there, I liked the way Pessl peppers the story with tidbits of that city. Street names, and scenes in Central Park complete with landmarks, cab rides and traffic, coffee shops and late-night parties. All the things that make that city unique bring a real-life feel to the setting. Readers who happen to live in the city will no doubt appreciate the familiarity that appears on almost every page.

There is a hint of the occult in this book, though the story itself is not a supernatural tale. Some of the clues McGrath follows suggest black magic and witchcraft was used by Cordova or others in his world, and in light of this I must credit Pessl for her balanced representation. She aptly depicts an occult shop in several scenes, as well as the type of assistance one might look for therein. The character of Cleo, a magical practitioner in the shop, is shown in a positive light. Even the dark magic specialist Cleo calls on for help unraveling a potential curse is portrayed as a beneficial character. Pessl deserves kudos for showing this fairly realistic view of those characters without making them stereotypically antagonistic or evil.

McGrath himself is a great character, flawed, yet relatable. Pessl gives us a good look inside his mind. His innate inquisitiveness, emotions regarding his failed marriage, his obsession with Cordova, and his desire to maintain a relationship with his young daughter all conspire to drive his decisions, sometimes in the wrong direction. Supporting characters Nora and Hopper add their own flavors to the mix. Nora’s innocence contrasts well with McGrath’s cynicism. Hopper’s bitterness plays well against McGrath’s refusal to draw conclusions from incomplete data.

One thing I really liked about this story is the constant shadowy presence of Cordova threaded through every moment, every scene, every thought in McGrath’s head. He, as a character, is the heart of the mystery that is Night Film. The more McGrath uncovered, the more enigmatic the filmmaker grew until I began to expect someone ten feet tall and bulletproof. When he finally appeared on the page—

Well. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so I’ll withhold that comment. Suffice to say I was not disappointed. Pessl kept my attention through the very last page, and left me wanting more. If you enjoy a good mystery, I highly recommend Night Film.