Book Review: Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

Pretty as a Picture

Elizabeth Little

February 25, 2020

A remote island, a Hollywood crew led by a tyrannical director, and a murder case that went cold decades ago. Elizabeth Little returns with her second novel Pretty as a Picture.

Elizabeth Little made her crime fiction debut with 2014’s Dear Daughter, which won the Strand Critics Award for Best First Novel; that title was also nominated for the Barry and Macavity Awards and longlisted for the CWA John Creasey. Prior to that, she wrote two non-fiction titles, Biting the Wax Tadpole (2007) and Trip of the Tongue. Little has also contributed to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. This February, she returns with her much-anticipated second novel, Pretty as a Picture.

As the story opens, readers are introduced to 36-year-old film editor Marissa Dahl, whose talents are overshadowed by a serious case of social anxiety (and gender). In the midst of a semi-separation BFF/creative collaborator, she is offered the opportunity to assume editing duties on a big-budget movie currently shooting with notorious director Tony Rees at its helm. Despite her misgivings about the project—she hasn’t seen a script, and Rees’s tyrannical reputation precedes him—she accepts the offer in hopes of advancing her career. But after being shuttled to a remote island off the coast of Delaware, where she’s ensconced in a hotel and contractually relieved of her personal cell phone, Marissa’s crippling doubts begin to get the best of her.

Turns out the picture is a dramatic retelling of an actual unsolved death—that of a young actress, Caitlyn Kelly, in 1994—that has plagued the island for many years and left one of its residents under the proverbial umbrella of suspicion. Further, the production has been plagued by a series of mishaps that may or may not be accidents. Consequently, Marissa is assigned a bodyguard of sorts, the imposing yet innately compassionate Isaiah. She quickly realizes that her job of putting together the pieces may apply to more than just the film itself. She finds unlikely allies in two teenage girls whose investigative savvy compliments her more contemplative style. But just as she’s beginning to piece together the past a present-day murder proves there’s (still?) a killer on the loose. 

Most of the story is told through Marissa’s first-person narration, which showcases her unique, and uniquely compelling, voice while also exposing her inner feelings of isolation despite being surrounded by a veritable throng of Hollywood heavy hitters and freeloaders alike. Shorter segments in the form of podcast transcription are interspersed throughout; these bits offer color commentary from secondary characters (and Marissa herself) while allowing Little to poke fun at tropes of true crime, where—much like the entertainment industry at large—everything is expected to be the same… but different. It’s a fitting format, given the toxicity of Tinseltown, where attractive appearances often belie darker realities. 

Like the best of cinema, Pretty as a Picture seduces with its surface charms only to ultimately sustain you with the depth of its subtext. In a world where pretense reigns supreme, Marissa Dahl (reluctantly) owns the spotlight as a perfectly imperfect heroine. Told with biting humor, keen intellect, and detailed precision, this is both a meta mystery and sharp satire that solidifies Elizabeth Little’s place among the genre’s most compelling and original talents. It’s been a long wait, but some things are worth it—and this is one of them.

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