(Jump down to read a review of The Song Is You)
(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUN 17, 2007)
"I would stare at her face when she wasn’t looking, and when she was, and I couldn’t read a thing in it. In spite of everything, I envied her that. To wear that kind of face. It seemed like something impressive to me still. I couldn’t shake that."
I’m attracted to noir for its strong female characters. Wimpy females don’t hold centre stage in noir, and this is certainly true in Queenpin, the latest novel from author Megan Abbott. In this novel, the two main characters are female, and in the final evaluation, it’s difficult to say exactly who is the most devious of this unholy pair. The unnamed twenty-two-year old narrator is an accountant for Club Tee Hee, a dive owned by two small-time sleaze balls, Jerome and Arthur. Asked to “cook the books,” the narrator catches on quickly, and does exactly what she’s told. But Jerome and Arthur are both bottom feeders in the crime world, and they have to answer to several people, including queenpin Gloria Denton. There are a number of legendary stories about Gloria, and none of them are pretty:
The regulars, they loved to talk about her, share stories, tales, legends. About how, in the glory days, she used to carry a long-handled pair of scissors in her purse when she collected in the rough parts of town, about the time an angry wife tried to run her over with her Cadillac outside her husband’s betting parlor, about a stripper named Candy Annie who crossed her on some deal back in ’48 but, when Annie walked into the ladies’ room at the Breakwater Hotel in Miami three months later, Gloria got her revenge with a straight-edge razor, gutting the stripper like a fish.
Respected, trusted and employed by the nastiest gangsters in the business, Gloria is cold, elegant, calculating and completely inscrutable. On her regular rounds to the club, Gloria notices the accountant (and her creative accounting) and these two women strike up a relationship. Offering “the keys to the kingdom,” Gloria grooms the narrator to be her “girl.” Soon the narrator is working for Gloria, living in a nice apartment, wearing clothes selected by Gloria, picking up money from various clubs, and also visiting the racetrack to place bets. Before long, the narrator has a number of successful shady deals under her garter belt, and Gloria trusts her new protégée, or at least she appears to….
The tense relationship between Gloria and the narrator is complex. There are moments when Gloria almost makes maternal gestures to her protégée, but then again, it’s clear that Gloria doesn’t have a maternal bone in her body. There are strong lesbian undertones--at least in Gloria’s relationship towards the younger woman, and while Gloria is proud of her “girl,” the narrator occasionally remembers to be grateful to her vicious, glamorous mentor. Gloria certainly sees the girl’s potential to become the next queenpin, but there are moments when the narrator doubts that she has Gloria’s “stuff.” Are these two women different sides of the same warped coin? Gloria certainly seems to think so, but when the pressure is on, will the narrator prove as cold and calculating as her seasoned mentor? Significantly, there is one fundamental difference between the two women. Gloria does not share the younger woman’s weakness for men.
Everything changes between the women when a smalltime loser named Vic Riordan enters the picture. “He was a loser, straight up. A chalk jumper. A sucker bettor.” But the narrator can’t help herself, and she sinks into a passionate affair that she keeps secret from Gloria. When Vic falls in deep trouble with money, he turns to his new girlfriend for help. And this is where the double-cross comes into the picture.
The narrator is a tough talking dame, but there are some points in the novel when this was stretched too far, and this is my biggest complaint. That said, I loved the way in which the author plays with the idea of exactly who is the toughest, meanest woman of the two, and ultimately, I suppose, it’s the one who “wins.” Abbott’s fascinating exploration of the narrator’s psyche keeps the pages turning, and there’s a savage inevitability here, a magnet pull towards destruction. The underlying motives behind the ambitious, grasping narrator’s decisions and actions remain murky at times, and that’s precisely what makes this novel such a great read. Abbott’s wonderfully amoral ending does not disappoint, and those of us who love noir fiction recognize that Abbott is an exciting new voice for this genre.
- Amazon readers rating: from 30 review
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"The Song is You"
(Reviewed by Guy Savage APR 15, 2007)
"And he went to premieres with the glimmering girls of the moment, lunch at the Derby, to the track with John Huston and his rough-living crowd. When someone needed to pick up the big-shot buccaneer at the drunk tank and slip some green to the blue, he sent Mike or Freddy or reliable old Bix, whom he’d hired himself. They kicked needles down sewer grates, slipped suicide notes into pockets, gave screen tests to hustlers quid pro quo. Hop had it taken care of. He had it fixed. Mr. Blue Sky. All from his chrome and mahogany office, cool and magisterial and pumped full of his own surging blood. He fucking loved his life. What did he do to deserve it?"
As a film noir fan, I can’t resist a well-written noir novel, and I was delighted to discover the gritty, dark and desolate tale, The Song Is You by Megan Abbott. The novel centers on the real-life unsolved mystery of Jean Spangler. Spangler, a model, dancer, and bit-part actress was just twenty-six years old when she vanished into the Hollywood vortex that claimed so many beautiful promising actresses. A few clues emerged after her disappearance, but the case sank rapidly from the headlines. In some ways, the case of Jean Spangler resembles that of the Black Dahlia (Elizabeth Short). The two women were both bit-part actresses and they bear a resemblance to one another--both strikingly beautiful brunettes with perfect features. The Black Dahlia was murdered in 1947--just two years before Jean disappeared. In the case of the Black Dahlia, the victim’s body was found, and the case remains one of the most gruesome unsolved crimes in Hollywood. Jean, on the other hand, was never found.
The novel begins on October 7th, 1949--the evening of Jean’s disappearance as she says goodbye to her family before setting out for an appointment, and then the story moves two years ahead to 1951. Jean is a forgotten headline, and the novel’s protagonist--Gil “Hop” Hopkins—is no longer a hack for Cinestar magazine. Now he’s a jaded, world-weary ambitious studio publicity man. He’s climbed the slimy ladder of Hollywood success in the two years since Jean vanished, and it soon becomes clear that Hop’s meteoric climb in Hollywood is somehow inexplicably connected to Jean’s disappearance. Hop has all but forgotten about Jean, but then Iolene, a young black actress and Jean’s closest friend contacts him. He’s not quite sure what she wants—she seems terrified, but then she throws out a few hints of blackmail. Hop brushes her off, but then after she leaves, memories float to the surface. Iolene “tapped into a tiny reservoir of guilt, of sympathy, of something, and now he couldn’t untap it.” Gradually Hop is forced to confront his complicity in Jean’s disappearance, and almost against his will, he begins piecing together the terrible truth as he begins “tracing her steps” in her last few hours before she slipped into “oblivion.”
Hop’s journey towards the truth takes him into the most notorious hellish dives haunted by “Hollywood royalty” and here the superstars mingle with “dark and ancient folk who’d moved from port to port for centuries, or so it seemed, carrying a taste for sexual devolution. Their eyes held secrets back to Babylon.” Jean-- a girl who’d “seen bad things enough to shake the word ‘bad’ loose from its roots”--a girl who thought she could “go to the far end of nothing with the best of them”--enters this dark, decadent, hopeless world and vanishes.
In many ways, The Song Is You is a redemption novel, and the person seeking redemption is the soulless, ambitious Hop. He is a wonderful creation--someone who vaguely remembers having a conscience in his distant past, but someone who over time has become so slick, so practiced at delivering deceit, that the truth has become unimportant. It’s his job to clean up scandals and “put out fires.” He’s so good at his job because he isn’t troubled by morality. Hollywood is depicted as a factory full of predators with “an open door into every dark urge they’d ever had” ready to promise the world to hopeful, young beautiful starlets. Hop is definitely one of those predators, and his redemption forms the basis of this dark, stylish atmospheric novel.
While the solution to Jean’s disappearance was arguably overly complicated, the novel’s perfect morally ambiguous ending sealed my enjoyment. Author Abbott seamlessly weaves in tawdry tidbits detailing the lives of major players of the era--the decline of Barbara Payton, for example, and her notorious career-breaking love triangle with Franchot Tone and Tom Neal. Hop swims in the muck and slime of Hollywood scandal, as he travels on his journey to the truth. Ultimately, he is a product of his environment, a marvelous noir character--a man who climbs to the top of the heap of tinsel town on the scandals of others, but who discovers the dying shreds of his conscience before it’s too late.
- Amazon readers rating: from 26 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Song Is You at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Die a Little (2005)
- The Song is You (2007)
- Queenpin (2007)
- Bury Me Deep (2009)
- The End of Everything (2011)
- Dare Me (2012)
- The Fever (June 2014)
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- Official website for Megan Abbott
- MostlyFiction.com interview with Megan Abbott (July 2009)
- Chapter excerpt from Die A Little
- MostlyFiction.com blog article on Bury Me Deep
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About the Author:
Megan Abbott was born and raised in the Detroit area. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English Literature. She received her Ph.D in English from New York University in 2000.
She has taught literature, writing and film at New York University and the State University of New York at Oswego.
She lives in New York City with her husband, Joshua Gaylord.