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By Marisha Pessl. Random House, $28.
When the daughter of a dark, reclusive cult film director commits suicide, disgraced journalist Scott McGrath becomes obsessed with the idea that she was murdered. He reopens his long-abandoned investigation of the mad-genius filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, employing a bewildered young actress and an impetuous drifter along the way. The ramshackle team follows leads to elite fetish parties, creepy antique stores and, eventually, Cordova’s mysterious compound; there, they’ll either crack the case or face dire consequences.
The ride of Night Film is a thrilling one, but not without its bumps. Scott is a bit of a blockhead, there are some odd gaps in plot and character motivation, and the prose is somewhat wooden; but Pessl makes these deficiencies feel inconsequential. The action sequences are good, but what the Special Topics in Calamity Physics author really nails is atmosphere: The warped and disturbing world of Cordova and his films, for instance, are haunting enough to keep one up at night. For best results, think of the book as a lightless, wooded path winding through the grounds of a frightening mansion late at night—focus on what’s right in front of you and everything will work out fine.