After my somewhat underwhelming first encounter with Lee Child, my 2012 Library Challenge continues with high hopes for another author I have heard lots of good things about. Indeed, this novel by Megan Abbott won the Edgar for best paperback original! Here’s what the blurb says:
A young woman, hired to keep the books at a down-at-the-heels nightclub, is taken under the wing of the infamous Gloria Denton, a mob luminary who reigned during the Golden Era of Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Before she knows it, she’s ushered into a glittering demimonde of late-night casinos, racetracks, betting parlors, inside heists, and big, big money.
As the title and the cover image suggest, this is both an hommage to the ‘Roman Noir’ and the 1950s heyday of the paperback original as well as a deconstruction of the genre by putting a feminist spin on the proceedings. The unnamed narrator comes from lowly if basically honest stock and takes a part-time job working for a small club while she is studying accountancy. It’s not long before she is asked to cook the books – and she realises that she has no qualms about doing this. More than anything, this a story about the education of the protagonist, as she weaves her way though the seamier avenues of an unnamed city. Her real ‘education’ however only begins when she catches her first glimpse (and she her) of Gloria Denton, the notorious moll who outlived the gangsters she ran with and is now a major cog in the mob machine, acting as a courier for them and trusted implicitly with their money. Gloria sees something in the girl and takes her under her wing. This proves to be instantly beneficial when, after she suggests she call in sick one morning, the club owners are brutally attacked and the place ransacked in retribution for their attempt to steal some of the mob’s money. Gloria now takes the girl over and grooms her as her protégée. There is a clear erotic charge that underlies some of this, but Gloria virtually never lets her mask slip and is perpetually in control. Only occasionally do we glimpse the passion and the hurt that lies beneath her wide-brimmed hats and large sunglasses – only occasionally do we realise that the callow narrating youth may not be seeing quite all that there is to see.
Our narrator is an unnamed woman in an anonymous city in an era that is probably the late 1950s, though we can’t be too sure exactly when as Abbott carefully omits any overt historical signifiers. In fact we are never told anything specific about the period other than it is set after the war. Abbott’s exclusion of pop culture references, apart from the names of a few of the gangsters Gloria new in her halcyon days, is meant to provide a timeless feel, locating an era that belongs to an amorphous but generally recognisable fictional ambience that lives in a collective cultural memory rather than a specific time and place. On the other hand, Denton is quite clearly modelled on Virginia Hill, the ultra hardboiled Chicago moll nicknamed ‘Queen of the Mob’ in the early 50s following her appearance at the Kefauver hearings (Abbott in fact pointedly name-checks her), with the arc of her life more or less mirrored by Denton’s in the book.
“I gotta get the big man thirty Gs by Wednesday or finito. Get it now?”
This novel arrives emblazoned with accolades from James Ellroy, who is certainly well-placed to appreciated a work that aspires to recreate the breathless prose and vernacular of the pulps to deliver something truly ‘nasty, brutish and short’, though Thomas Hobbes doesn’t get much of a look in. This is the world of James L. Cain, Jim Thompson, David Goodis and Cornell Woolrich, but because it is also so deliberately generic it tends to eschew the depths of psychosis, fatalism and moral nihilism that characterises the best-known work of those often obsessive authors. Instead we are able to re-evaluate some of the genre tropes with a fresh eye as our narrator moves up the ladder – and is then predictably knocked back, or sideways anyway, when she meets a gambler whose only travel trajectory will be down.
Maybe under all the pulp, he was smiling.
The homme fatale in the story is Vic Riordan, a loser in every sense of the word. Part of the appeal he has for our girl is precisely that he is bad news – the thrill for her comes in giving in to a kid of atavistic, self-destructive impulse to do exactly the wrong thing for the worst reason despite the careful moulding she has undergone under Gloria’s expert and precise guidance. For her it’s like indulging in a high calorie meal, or rather a succession of them made up of steamy and rough sex and then more of the same – only potentially more immediately fatal than even too much bad cholesterol! Will Vic, despite his easy charm and sexual allure, survive or will he bring Gloria’s schemes crashing drown? You’ll have to read the book to find out but in the second half, which draws extensively on James L. Cain’s groundbreaking The Postman Always Rings Twice, a bloody murder takes place and then twist follows twist and eventually even the corrupt police are forced to sit up and take notice.
“Okay. But ain’t that the fella’s line?”
The most notable aspect of this work is the success with which it reflects the paperback noir of the 40s and 50s through the prism of Second Wave Feminist. Here it’s the women who are smart and men who are dumb; they are the active participants of the story, while the men are weak and corrupt. This is not necessarily something that was absent from the novels of Cain and Woolrich, who often mined the women’s melodrama genre with great success, but rarely has it been done so purposefully and forcefully. This is an intelligent look at a lowdown genre that embraces the literary from which it springs and makes no concessions while still providing a new slant – but, for this reader at least, there is a ‘but’.
For, as thought-provoking as it was, I also found it perhaps a bit too studied, too methodical, too lacking in genuine feeling to truly convince. As an exercise in literary dissection and reflection it is very effective – as a genre novel I found the approach created a certain limitation to its ability to connect more directly with the reader – or any way, this reader. The cool calculation behind the appropriation of pulp motifs for the creation of its effects, while very well orchestrated, also made it impossible to really care about the character’s predicament. Which is a shame, because the craft is unmistakable and the intentions admirable – yet ultimately, much as I enjoyed it, I also found myself emotionally disengaged and nonplussed. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I hope not. And I definitely plan to go back for more of Abbott’s work in the future – by definition this couldn’t be the real thing, but it provides real food for thought and a sharp plot that keeps one reading well into the wee hours.
The author’s homepage can be found at: www.meganabbott.com