Pretty As a Picture

A Novel

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Trade Paperback

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A Wall Street Journal, Seattle Times, and CrimeReads Best Mystery Book of 2020

“Funny, fast-paced, and a pleasure to read.” –The Wall Street Journal

An egomaniacal movie director, an isolated island, and a decades-old murder–the addictive new novel from the bestselling author of Dear Daughter

Marissa Dahl, an up-and-coming film editor with a flair for faux pas, travels to a small island off the coast of Delaware to work with the legendary–and legendarily demanding–director Tony Rees on a feature film with a familiar logline.

Some girl dies.

It’s not much to go on, but the specifics don’t concern Marissa. Whatever the script is, her job is the same. She’ll spend her days in the editing room, doing what she does best: turning pictures into stories.

But she soon discovers that on this set, nothing is as it’s supposed to be–or as it seems. There are rumors of accidents and indiscretions, of burgeoning scandals and perilous schemes. Half the crew has been fired. The other half wants to quit. Even the actors have figured out something is wrong. And no one seems to know what happened to the editor she was hired to replace.

Then she meets the intrepid and incorrigible teenage girls who are determined to solve the real-life murder that is the movie’s central subject, and before long, Marissa is drawn into the investigation herself.

The only problem is, the killer may still be on the loose. And he might not be finished.

A wickedly funny exploration of our cultural addiction to tales of murder and mayhem and a thrilling, behind-the-scenes whodunit, Pretty as a Picture is a captivating page-turner from one of the most distinctive voices in crime fiction.


Life in the movie business is like the . . . beginning of a new love affair: it's full of surprises, and you're constantly getting fucked.

—David Mamet


They say a picture's worth a thousand words.

That's not what I'd say.

I'd say it depends on the picture. I'd say it depends on the size and the color and the subject and the print and the framing and the focus and the composition. I'd say it depends on what you were doing the hour before, the day before, the year before, the life before. I'd say it depends on whether you're looking at it on a wall or scrolling past it on a screen or cutting it carefully out of a book, digging your knuckle into the gutter of the spine because the margins are so small and the blades are so long and it's impossible to get a straight line, but you don't want to dig up a guide and an X-Acto knife because you aren't willing to wait, you have to have it, you have to have this picture, right now, and your kitchen scissors are close enough and good enough—yes, good enough—and Jesus Christ, Marissa, when will you get it through your thick head: Imperfection is a price happy people pay to cradle the weight of something they love.

That's what I'd say.

But I understand some people prefer the cozy imprecision of "nice round numbers," so I'm willing to pretend, for the moment, for the sake of argument, that a single picture is indeed worth one thousand point zero zero words exactly.

It would follow, then, that two pictures are worth two thousand words.

A hundred pictures, a hundred thousand words.

At that rate it wouldn't take too many pictures before you'd have in front of you all the words there ever were in all the world and more besides, more words than anyone could thread together into anything resembling sense.

Think about that the next time you go to the movies.

If you want to trick the human eye into believing a series of pictures represents continuous motion—what first-semester film school students learn to call "persistence of vision"—you're going to need to present your audience with about sixteen frames per second. More, if you'd like, but no fewer.

Sixteen. Not round, but still a number people like to hang on to. It's often said that 16 FPS was the standard frame rate in the silent film era, but that's wrong—there was no standard. Those cameras were hand-cranked, and directors varied the frame rate from scene to scene depending on the rhythm that suited their story. But once talkies came along, picture had to sync to sound, and since then, the frame rate used in movie production and projection has been 24 FPS, with a few exceptions I won't let myself go into, because according to Amy no one wants to hear what anyone thinks about Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

By this reckoning, at eighty-five minutes, your average movie is made up of 122,400 frames. So if a picture's worth a thousand words—well, that average movie must be worth 122,400,000 words.

One hundred twenty-two million.

In the wrong hands, that's too much. Too much information, too much possibility. No one can find a signal in all that noise. You might as well eat a library. You might as well drink a dictionary. You might as well ask an actor how they're feeling.

That's why they come to me. The editor.

Give me enough time. Give me enough space. Give me a dark room and a roll of film, a Steenbeck, a Moviola, an Avid NLE, a director with a vision and an actor with some craft.

Give me an X-Acto knife and a guide.

Give me this, and I'll do all the things with pictures I can never do with words. I'll slice and stitch and lace and weave and cut and wipe and fade. I'll crack open the body of the beast and slip my hands beneath its beating heart.

Give me a movie and I'll find the meaning; I'll find the truth; I'll find the story.

Sometimes, if I'm very lucky, I'll find all three.


Not that I manage to say any of that out loud.

Of course I don't.

Sometimes I think everything wrong with my life can be located in the space between what I should have said and what actually came out of my mouth. No matter how hard I try, no matter how well I prepare, the right words are, for me, forever out of reach. Not because they catch in my throat. A cat hasn't got my tongue. None of the usual phrases apply. It's a more comprehensive kind of collapse. When faced with any real conversational pressure, my personality just goes offline, AWOL, and no matter how hard I try, it doesn't respond. Catastrophic system failure.

Speak, I tell myself in those moments. Speak.

Like I'm Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, lying barefoot in the back of that truck, gritting my teeth and trying to force my insubordinate body to bend to my iron will.


But I'm not Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. I didn't train with Gordon Liu. I don't know the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, and I don't have the body to pull off a yellow leather motorcycle suit. So I never get my toe to move. I never drive that truck to Vivica A. Fox's house. I never get revenge and I never find my daughter. I just starve to death in a hospital parking lot.

And in real life, when asked to explain to a potential employer why I'm the best candidate for a job I desperately need, I don't deliver a rousing monologue about the exhilarating, all-encompassing, soul-shifting, life-shaking power of cinema. Instead I just comb my fingers through my ponytail for the seventeenth time while mumbling something about my work ethic.

Then, to top it off, I shrug—I shrug—and I say:

"I just really like movies, I guess."

My agent makes a sound so pained I'm genuinely worried I might have killed her.

I don't know what else Nell expected, it's been six years since I've had to look for work. Six years since Amy hit it just big enough that we could coast from feature to feature to feature without having to hustle for work we hated in the interim. It took some doing—the plumbing in the Mid-City two-bedroom we shared was more vague promise than functional reality, and six nights a week we ate rice and beans we bought in bulk—but eventually she was able to stop taking AD gigs; I was able to stop doing TV. We found a rhythm that worked for us, postproduction bleeding into preproduction and back again, and if I didn't have time for a social life, I wasn't particularly bothered: I got to live and work with my very best friend.

But last month I decided it was time to start thinking about getting my own place, and Amy and I put the new movie on hold so we could figure things out.

It didn't take long to realize that blowing up my personal and professional lives all at once wasn't exactly the smartest thing I could have done. For about three days it felt freeing. But then I ran out of new-release movies to see.

And so, this afternoon, I found myself pacing the inadequate length of my short-term rental in Burbank, restless, anxious, fingers fluttering at my sides. I had finally managed to work up the nerve to send a few emails to old colleagues, hoping I could pick up an episode or two of I truly didn't even care what, but either they didn't remember me or they were all out to lunch or Gmail was down for everyone but me.

By two p.m., my nerves—already frayed by the arrival of my credit card statement—drove me to a desperate act: I made a phone call. I left a message for my agent explaining that Amy and I were taking a break, that I needed a job, and, therefore, that I might actually be willing to take her advice for once.

I should have known something was fishy when she called me back right away.

"You have a meeting," she said.

"Who with?" I asked.

"Don't worry about that. Get here by six, I'll take care of the rest."

"Today? At rush hour?"

"You want a job or not?"

"Nell. Have they even seen my reel?"

"Don't worry about that, either."

"The more you say that the more I worry."

She sniffed. "Worry, don't worry, either way this is the only open assignment that isn't scraping memory cards for Transformers 7. So if you want it, be here at six." She paused. "And maybe do something with your hair."

She hung up without saying good-bye, and I wished, not for the first time, that I were an agent, too.

Imagine being able to end a conversation whenever you want.

When I arrived at Nell's office—ten minutes early, despite a slowdown at Coldwater and Mulholland—I still didn't have a clue what I was walking into. Nell hadn't mentioned a script or a story or even a logline, so my best guess was that she'd arranged for a late-day meet-and-greet with a producer too green to know this was a below-the-line agency. As a strategy, it didn't make much sense: Nell knew my personality wasn't my strongest selling point. I figured she was planning to keep the meeting short.

Nell gave my ponytail a tug when she saw me. "You got this," she said, all historical evidence to the contrary.

And that's how I found myself sitting here, across the table from two agents, three lawyers, and an important studio executive, interviewing for a job I know absolutely nothing about.

I obviously forgot the important executive's name immediately. I think it has a "y" in it, maybe? He's wearing chunky statement glasses and a plain black T-shirt that probably cost more than my car payment. He's the picture of bland, reflexive courtesy, steepling his fingers and leaning forward in his chair, nodding at every third word no matter what that word is.

After more than a decade in the film industry, I can confidently assert that this particular demeanor indicates one of the following:

  1. measured enthusiasm

  2. catatonic boredom

  3. a recent corporate-mandated webinar on best listening practices

I suppose it could be worse.

I blink his face back into focus. I think he's finally saying something relevant.

"—coming in this late in the game is somewhat less than ideal, obviously, so what we need here is a quick study."

My eyebrows go up. "And you called me?"

"Well," he says, "we've been told there's no one better at watching footage and knowing exactly what the director's trying to say."

"It helps that they usually give me a script."

The executive beckons to one of the assistants stationed along the back wall. She pulls out a folder and hands it to him. He slides it across the table toward me.

Inside is a photo. Glossy, eight by ten.

"That's not a script," I point out.

"No," he agrees. "It's a still. And I want you to tell us what you see."

I draw a breath, preparing to explain to the room at large why this is a terrible way to gauge an editor's skills (for a start, my job is putting pictures together, not picking them apart), but then I catch a glimpse of the photo, and because at heart I'm just a dog who happens to be into a very particular type of squirrel, this is all it takes to send my thoughts racing off in a new direction.

It's a medium close-up of a young woman asleep on a beach, and the first thing worth noting is that she's being played by Liza May, Oscar-anointed ingenue and the reigning, relatable queen of the "Stars, They're Just Like Us!" social media sphere. Last time I saw her, I think she was waxing her mustache on Facebook Live.

So this is a big-time job. For a big-time director. No wonder Nell was so responsive.

The second thing worth noting is that the woman is dead.

Her body occupies the left half of the frame, visible from the shoulders up, the straps of her neon orange swimsuit the only discordant shade in an otherwise tranquil palette. Her hair is silky, taupe and raw umber and dark blond, streaked by the sun. It falls in layers over her cheek; one strand teases at the corner of her mouth. Her eyebrows have been thinned out, which makes her look older than she is, but she's barely wearing any foundation, which makes her look younger than she is. Her skin is smooth and very clear.

She's lying on a weathered wooden beach chair with a white canvas cover. Her arm is stretched out over her head, her cheek pillowed against her right biceps, her profile radiant in the golden light of a late summer afternoon, that time of day when the angle of the sun and the particles in the atmosphere do what a reflector or bounce board can never quite match, what color grading can't quite pull off.

"Well?" the executive asks. "What do you think?"

"I think magic hour's a nice time to die."

The executive adjusts his glasses. "How do you know she's dead?"

"Well—" I draw out the word as long as I can, buying time to reverse engineer my own thinking. It's been a while since I've had to deconstruct the gut certainties that make me good at my job.

I stare at the picture until my eyes start to water, searching for something, anything that might help me stand out. Eventually my finger lands on a faint line that slices vertically through the frame, just past the edge of Liza's chair.

"The split diopter," I say.

"Explain," he says.

"It's a half lens you stick on the end of the camera if you want to keep two different planes in focus at the same time—like bifocals, but for the movies. So we have Liza here, in the foreground, and then all these beachgoers, there, way far away in the background—but they're both in focus, right? That wouldn't be possible without a split diopter. I wish people used it more often, but I guess De Palma kind of beat it to death back in the seventies and eighties, and now it's not—"

The executive holds up a hand. "Yes, I know what a diopter is, thank you."

My mouth snaps shut.

"What I'm wondering is how that tells you she's dead."

I sneak a glance at the door. "You know, I'm not the best at putting this stuff into words. Maybe I could just show you my reel?"

Nell wraps her hand around my wrist and whispers in my ear.

"Robots, Marissa. In disguise."

"I get it," I say, and even I can tell my voice is tight and unfriendly. I edge my chair away from the table until I have enough room to jiggle my foot without accidentally kicking anyone. After a few seconds of this, I'm able to explain myself. "Since this is a studio movie, it's a safe assumption the crowd's being kept in focus because they're an important part of the scene. Because we're waiting for one of them to notice Liza—to find her. The prospect of discovery, that's what's driving the tension here. It wouldn't be dramatic if she were just taking a nap."

The executive props his elbow on the back of his chair and pushes his hair back from his forehead. "You're certain of that?"

I consider the shot again. "I guess it's possible the director just thinks it looks cool—"

Nell kicks my chair.

"—but either way, she's definitely dead."

The executive studies me over the rims of his glasses. "You're the first person to bring that up. Everyone else said the white lips were the giveaway."

"No, I wouldn't trust this makeup department."

"Why not?"

I point to Liza's face. "In the summer, someone with her coloring would freckle. They gave Liza a spray tan, obviously, but the cosmetician adjusted the color, washed it out—probably because her blood would already be pooling in her lower extremities, so she'd be paler than normal. Livor mortis, right? But dying doesn't make your freckles disappear. They should have painted some in." I brush my fingertip along her cheekbones. "Right now she looks too much like a movie star, and you don't want that, not when you're doing true crime."

The executive is frowning now, two small lines etched between his eyebrows, and it occurs to me that dragging their makeup department was not, perhaps, the best way to win this job.

Well, at least Nell won't be able to say I didn't try.

I open my mouth to thank them for their time—

"What makes you say it's true crime?" the executive asks.

I glance back down at the photo. Why did I say that?

"Judging by the costume design, it's a period piece—midnineties, probably? And I figure it's based on a true story because—yeah, the color hasn't been corrected or graded, I know, but the overall palette is so deliberate and carefully curated. Meanwhile, that swimsuit she's wearing is just . . . unbelievably orange." The answer comes to me the second before I say it. "So I'm thinking, probably, it's the same suit the real girl was murdered in."

"Hold on," he says, "I never said she was murdered."

"That just stands to reason. Why else would you make a movie about it?"

Now, I may not be a crackerjack conversationalist, but I'm something of a connoisseur of silences. You can, roughly, separate them into two groups: the kind of silence where everyone's looking at each other and the kind of silence where everyone's not looking at each other. Personally, I prefer the latter. If there's going to be cruel laughter, I'd rather it be out of earshot.

The silence that just settled over this room, however, is an extremely undesirable third variety:

Everyone's looking at something else. Namely, the speakerphone in the center of the table.

Which means they're scared.

Then there's a crackle of static, and a voice comes over the line, sealing my fate.

"She'll do."

Note: Dead Ringer is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and Suzy's little brother and may contain errors because lollll, guys, this is not This American Life. Cut us some slack.

SUZY KOH: Hi, everyone, I'm Suzy Koh—

GRACE PORTILLO: And I'm Grace Portillo.

SUZY KOH:—and welcome to this week's episode of Dead Ringer, the true crime podcast for people who hate true crime podcasts.



GRACE PORTILLO: I don't know, that just seems, like, unnecessarily divisive.

SUZY KOH: Fine. It's also the true crime podcast for people who love true crime podcasts.


SUZY KOH: And for people who only kinda like them. And for people who don't even know what podcasts are—but that's okay, Grandma, I still love you. [pause] Did I miss anyone? Or is that inclusive enough for you?


SUZY KOH: Right, so when we left off last week, Tony Rees's big-deal dead-girl drama had just hit a snag, losing its highest-profile crew member to date—

GRACE PORTILLO: Not that anyone on the production staff would admit what had happened.

SUZY KOH: The excuse the producer gave at the time was that Tony and his editor had parted ways—

GRACE PORTILLO: Right—"creative differences." Which doesn't even make sense! They weren't even editing the movie yet!

SUZY KOH: Yeah, but we didn't realize that then. We'd never been on a film set before.

GRACE PORTILLO: What was the crew's excuse?

SUZY KOH: Probably something to do with not wanting to be fired?

GRACE PORTILLO: Oh. Yeah, I guess that makes sense.

SUZY KOH: So we begin today's episode with the arrival of Marissa Dahl.

GRACE PORTILLO: Marissa, thanks so much for agreeing to speak with us.

MARISSA DAHL: And thank you for agreeing to stop leaving me voice mails if I came on.

SUZY KOH: Marissa's a film and TV editor best known for her work with Amy Evans, the award-winning director of Mary Queen of the Universe and All My Pretty Ones.

GRACE PORTILLO: Best known until recently.

SUZY KOH: Well, right. You probably know her as the woman who cracked two of the biggest murder cases of the year.


Hollywood has just two speeds, "We'll get back to you" and "We need this yesterday," and as soon as the speakerphone clicks off, we skip straight past the slow torture of the former and into the unforgiving maw of the latter. The lawyers and agents are all talking rapidly, all at once, about all the things I pay them to think about for me.

"I assume our previous deal memo stands."

"I'm happy to reopen the discussion of residuals."

"I'm happy to reopen the discussion of her quote."

"Her quote's her quote, Steve."

There's an assistant—who can say whose—at my side, tapping on two phones simultaneously, peppering me with questions I barely manage to register, much less respond to.

"Burbank or LAX? Nonstop on American or a layover in Chicago on United? Aisle or window? Six o'clock or seven twenty?"

"There's nothing tonight?" the executive asks.

I frown. "Tonight-tonight?"

The assistant chews her lip and flicks furiously at her screens. "No—last flight's at nine forty-five. She won't make it."

"Excuse me, I'm sorry, but are you talking about me right now?"

The executive peers at my agent. "Nell, you sure we can't send her coach?"

She shrugs. "If you think you can find a better candidate, go right on ahead."

The executive sighs and nods to the assistant. "Book the six a.m. We'll have our guy meet her there."

On Sale
Dec 29, 2020
Page Count
352 pages