Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House, August 2013)-Night Film has been described as this year’s Gone Girl. Well, I actually haven’t yet read Gone Girl (I know!!), but I know how highly regarded it is so was curious to see if Night Film would live up to that kind of hype. Not to worry, guys and gals. I read the nearly 600 page book in under 2 days, staying up until about 4am to finish, and it was totally worth the lost sleep. Night Film starts innocuously enough, with the death of a 24 year old woman, Ashley Cordova, as mysteries frequently do, but there’s nothing innocuous about Ashley. We’ll get to that in a bit. The book is narrated by Scott McGrath, a somewhat disgraced journalist whose past successes didn’t make up for the monumental blunder he made when trying to get the scoop on reclusive and wildly mysterious horror filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, who also happens to be Ashley Cordova’s father. Scott got a “tip” on Cordova about possible dark doings at the vast Cordova estate, and unfortunately for Scott, he made wild accusations without proving a thing, and was slapped with a slander lawsuit by Cordova. It was a near fatal blow for an investigative journalist who should have been riding the high of an distinguished career. When Scott hears of Ashley’s death of an apparent suicide, he’s eager to resume the investigation that he started, but he plans to keep this one strictly on the downlow, until he has everything he needs to prove that something untoward is going on in the Cordova family, something that would drive the beautiful and brilliant Ashley to suicide.
Scott soon teams up (quite against his will) with a 19 year old coat check girl, Nora Halliday, who claims to have info on Ashley, as well as a small time drug dealer who calls himself Hopper, who actually attempted to assault Scott as he was visiting the scene of Ashley’s plummet down an abandoned elevator shaft to a derelict Chinatown warehouse below. Scott initially sees Hopper as a punk and doesn’t want him anywhere near the investigation, but Hopper seems to have his own talent for investigation, and frankly, Scott could use all the help he can get, even if he may not want it.
Proving to find reliable information on Stanislas Cordova is nearly impossible. He lives in a fortress of a mansion called The Peak on 300 acres in upstate New York, surrounded by an electrified 20 ft fence. He has filmed all of his movies there, some of which have gone underground and can only be bought on the black market. His fans (or more accurately followers) call themselves Cordovites, hold secret screenings of the movies, and are rabid in their devotion. Surely the creator of such dark films has to be some kind of madman, the kind of man that could drive his own child to suicide? Scott is convinced of it, but he needs proof, and getting it will take him to places he never could have imagined.
With Nora and Hopper on hand, Scott must navigate the dark underworld of Cordova’s followers and his films, learning along the way that whatever demons haunted Ashley, she was a very special girl, indeed, seemingly able to enchant anyone with one look from her depthless eyes. Her beauty is legendary, but as the author illustrates, sometimes beauty can hide such pain, and in Cordova’s labyrinthine, dark, and glittering world of movie stars and secrets, some things are best left buried. One thing is fact: Scott’s obsession is threatening to consume him, and isolate him from everything, and everyone he holds dear, proving that Cordova’s reach is far beyond the lens of the camera.
When I received Night Film, I cracked it open, only meaning to skim the first couple of pages. Don’t do that if you’re not planning to be hooked right away! The narrative are interspersed with realistic newspaper clippings and internet articles that Scott has collected in his research, which I thought was a brilliant touch, and had to keep myself from flicking through those pages before getting to them, but I waited for each tidbit, and was glad I did. It gives the reader some background that might have been awkward coming from Scott himself. Scott is an amiable, rather sarcastic, and jaded, narrator, and of course, during the investigation, he’s tested over and over, forced to question everything he ever thought to be true. I enjoyed Scott, but I fell hard for Nora Halliday. When she first bursts onto the pages, all arms and legs, wild colored clothing, and attitude, she comes off as more than a bit annoying, barging into the investigation, and Scott’s life, with all of the grace of a Tasmanian devil. He soon takes her on as his assistant, and she even stays with him during the course of his investigation, but if you’re looking for romance, you won’t find it in this book. In fact, Scott is still rather besotted with his ex-wife and he adores his 5 year old daughter, Sam. Hopper’s presence isn’t nearly as BIG as Nora’s, but he’s important, and he proves to have invaluable snooping skills. Ashley Cordova is nearly as large in death as she was in life; a wild, brilliant force of nature that makes an indelible impression on whoever she comes in contact with. Night Film is as much about Scott McGrath as it is about the events leading up to Ashley’s death, and at nearly every turn, I thought I might know where things were going, but I didn’t. Not at all. Not even close.
A shadowy filmmaker with an enchanted, and possibly cursed family, black magic, secret parties where the most debauched, and elite, gather, and a beautiful, crumbling mansion that may or may not house countless horrors…it’s all here. The Cordovites insist that after seeing a Cordova film, you’re a changed person. Everything is brighter, colors more vivid, life is richer. Whatever the case may be, Night Film is an intricate, brilliantly written, enchanting, genuinely creepy, sometimes heartbreaking, read, and I won’t be surprised at all to find it on a ton of Best of 2013 lists. It’s an essential for suspense/thriller fans and I won’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone that will listen. Marisha Pessle is a name to remember, and an enormous talent. I can’t wait to see what she has up her sleeve next.