It’s such a treat to discover a new author it always makes you a bit greedy for more. Megan Abbott has only written two books but a third, Queenpin, is due later this year. Abbott will be joining our book club this month – hence the feverish reading of her books – but what a gratifying surprise to find the books to be original, well written, and full of haunting and memorable characters. Her first novel, Die a Little, was on the short list for the Edgar, the Anthony and the Shamus (and I personally thought she had at least one of these in the bag), so I guess it shouldn’t be such a giant surprise to find that these books are good. But they’re not just good, they’re distinctive and unique. They’re not sequential – you can read them in any order – but in tone they’re certainly similar.
I’m always afraid when an author sets a book back in a certain time period and then writes in that style – these feel like a feminine version of James M. Cain has written them – that they’ll be gimicky and non-authentic, and devoid of genuine emotion. But while these are very self consciously aware of the products and feel of the 50’s, they feel authentic, and once you get sucked into the lives of the characters, the setting becomes just so much delicious background. Both novels are set in Los Angeles; Die a Little is only on the fringes of Hollywood. It’s the story of a brother and sister – Lora and Bill King – so close that they share an apartment. When Bill meets Alice Steele in a slight traffic dust up, their lives are completely disrupted. Lora is a teacher, and Bill, thanks to a lucky fluke, is a freakishly young assistant in the DA’s office. Alice is from the nether world of Hollywood – she’s worked in wardrobe, and knows the secrets of the stars. At first Lora watches in amazement as her sister in law transforms her brother’s life – the ranch house, the rowdy parties, the perfect, almost manic cooking. She’s always exquisitely turned out, and she’s always urging Lora toward one of her friends, the shadowy PR man, Mike, and closer to the life, she, Alice, used to live.
Out of the corner of her eye Lora notices Bill looking at his new wife like he’s the luckiest man alive – she’s just too good to be true. Lora thinks Alice may be too good to be true, but in another, darker way. As she gets to know Mike better and enjoy the time they spend together – he brings a real glamor to her school marm lifestyle – she starts to get to know more about Alice, and to trust her less and less. Bill remains the unsullied innocent at the center of the story; it’s up to Lora to discover Alice’s secrets. Lora ends up helping to find Alice a job as a home ec teacher at her school – the girls all find her so glamorous – but then her life begins to fall apart, first with the intrusion of a friend from Alice’s past who turns up in Alice’s kitchen; then with a few more accidental discoveries made by Lora as the gap between her life as a teacher and the girlfriend of Mike and sister in law of Alice becomes an ever widening one.
Abbott sets up her story like a pro and then twists it for all the emotional impact and suspense she can. The story is concisely told, but so rich with prose and detail, as well as rich in character development, that absolutely nothing seems missing. There’s not a wrong note in this wonderful first novel. When I turned to the second, still being an untrusting soul (maybe I’ve read too many books), I was not expecting as excellent a ride as the first book but was prepared to be pleasantly entertained. If anything, The Song is You is even better, though it’s not told from such a uniquely female noir point of view.
Females are absolutely central to The Song is You, though, as a web of three of them entangle glib PR man Gil “Hop” Hopkins on the ride of his life. Coiled like a tense spring around him are his ex-wife, Midge, beautiful and worldly-wise; bit player, exotic Iolene; and Iolene’s friend, Jean Spangler, beautiful only when she smiles. On a sultry night in 1949 – this is based on a true incident – Jean kisses her small daughter goodbye and goes off to a night shoot with Iolene. She’s never seen again; the only thing found is her handbag. It’s Iolene who gets the ball rolling; she comes to Hop worried about her friend and certain that two Hollywood stars are responsible for her disappearnce. She’s obviously scared, and for some reason, Hop can’t get her out of his head. As Hop follows her trail, he goes deeper and deeper into the underbelly of Hollywood, in the process exposing not only Hollywood’s dark side, but his own failures in his marriage and relationship. His contacts with his ex. Midge, are an unhappy counterpoint in his search for Jean.
Dogging his steps is smart and peppy reporter Frannie Adair, who almost rises above the scum that Hop is stirring up. In this novel, Hollywood is seen from every point of view – the ambitious starlets; the fading star, whose marriage and career Hop tries to salvage through some clever PR; the reporter covering the whole thing; and maybe worst of all, the two male stars who seem to be at the center of all the trouble. If you’ve ever read Hollywood Babylon and hungered for more, Abbott delivers the goods. While the ending might technically be called a “happy” one this is a haunting novel. Abbott is a very talented writer who has embraced noir and brought a fresh breath of air to it – here’s hoping to many more looks at the dark side of Hollywood.