“Pretty as a Picture,” Viking, by Elizabeth Little
A film set located on a small remote island off the coast of Delaware evolves into an exciting locked-room mystery that touches on domineering personalities, art and the #MeToo movement, helmed by an unconventional heroine, in “Pretty as a Picture” by Elizabeth Little.
Prickly, socially inept film editor Marissa Dahl makes for an unusual, but fascinating lead in Little’s second novel. Lacking a filter and prone to making inappropriate comments, Marissa is quite good at her job and has success working with her longtime – and only – friend Amy Evans, who directs small but highly respected independent films.
Movies are everything to Marissa and she funnels most of her experiences through films, comparing every situation to a celluloid scene. This is almost a source of pride, as she acknowledges that “the language of film has infiltrated some primal, necessary part of my brain. I catch myself processing my own emotions in scenes, in shots, in dialogue.”
Needing a job, Marissa agrees to work for egotistical Tony Rees, whose latest project is a secretive true crime movie being shot on Kickout Island off the Delaware coast, which, in a way, is sealed off from the rest of the world. The movie set is fraught with chaos, with crew members being fired or quitting in droves, dangerous accidents such as lighting banks exploding and a general sense of danger. The production also has raised the ire of the islanders as the movie is about the murder of a popular local girl, 19-year-old Caitlyn Kelly, whose body was found on the beach in 1994; the case was never solved.
Little’s cinematic eye and affinity for strong plotting guide the fascinating “Pretty as a Picture” as the author smoothly goes behind the scenes of moviemaking while delving into characters’ psyches.
Tony’s highly touted accomplishments as director are matched by his coarseness and narcissistic personality. Tony is known to brutalize his staff and actors, as well as put them into dangerous situations, to achieve his goals. Little effectively shows the atmosphere that allows people like Tony to thrive, and why smart people put up with these antics.
Marissa’s love of movies allows her to see life as a series of scenes edited to form a blockbuster movie. She lacks tact and finesse, but she knows movies inside and out, needs the movies to function and often sees her life in terms of “Fargo,” “Kill Bill,” “War Games” or “The Terminator” character Sarah Connor. For her, movies are what the madeleine was to Proust. Give Marissa the tools a film editor needs and she can “do all the things with pictures I can never do with words.”
Without giving away a smidgeon of spoilers, Little effectively intersperses her narrative with snippets from the true-crime podcast “Dead Ringer,” which examines what happened on the island.
Little’s debut novel, “Dear Daughter,” was a standout of 2014. “Pretty as a Picture” seals her as an author to watch.