Laura Lippman’s latest pays homage to noir classics; Robert Harris uses the 1938 Munich Pact as a backdrop to his latest thriller

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Book Review

The masterful Laura Lippman typically alternates between incisive psychological thrillers and sunnier books about Baltimore P.I. Tess Monaghan.

But “Sunburn” (Morrow, 304 pp., $26.99) is something else: a dark, explicit homage to such noir classics as James M. Cain’s “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.”

Polly and Adam meet during a brutal summer at a nondescript dive bar in small-town Delaware. They’re both just passing through — or so they say. There’s a torrid affair, a death, and intensifying levels of desire and betrayal.

Aretha Franklin once sang, “Who’s zoomin’ who?” In this case, it’s more like: Who’s using whom?

“Sunburn,” as any good noir should be, is satisfyingly swift, intricate and hotblooded, with both a big heart and a wicked sting. Lippman will appear, with her husband, David Simon (TV’s “The Wire,” “Treme”), at Seattle Arts & Lectures on March 30.

The versatile British thriller writer Robert Harris likes to use history as a springboard for imaginative flight — notably, in “Fatherland,” postulating a victory for the Nazis. “Munich” (Knopf, 320 pp., $27.95) returns to that era but hews closer to the historical record.

The Munich Pact of 1938 — which resulted in British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s catastrophically misguided declaration of “peace in our time”— was a defining moment in the years before World War II.

The days leading up to that moment are the backdrop for “Munich.” Harris conveys the era’s ominous developments through the eyes of two experienced foreign diplomats.

One British and one German, they are old friends from university days, now on opposite sides as their paths from London and Berlin, respectively, lead inexorably to Munich.

Meanwhile, Harris brings into play his variation on a (real-life) plot by German military leaders to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Harris is kinder to Chamberlain than many historians are, portraying him as an intelligent man desperate to avoid war, not merely a hapless politician who capitulated to evil.

The writer’s evocation of Europe on the verge of war is deft and intensely cinematic. And, as always, his characters are nuanced and his sense of suspenseful timing is impeccable.

On the local front: “Dangerous to Know” (by the Seattle husband-and-wife team of Rosemarie and Vince Keenan, who write as Renee Patrick) has been nominated for an Agatha Award in the Best Historical Novel category.

The annual awards, honoring traditional mysteries a la Agatha Christie, will be presented in April at the Malice Domestic conference in Bethesda, Maryland.