Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hard Boiled: Megan Abbott

The two have been so conflated, one almost forgets that hard boiled detective fiction and film noir are different entities that inspired and influenced each other, but are different none the less. I feel pretty comfortable saying that pretty much anyone alive in America right now started with the movies. I know I did. German expressionism meets post-war nihilism. Crime, bad men, shady dames and unhappy endings, all shot in glorious black and white (it took Polanski to make it work in technicolor). I was raised seemingly from birth on a pretty steady diet of film noir. And then I started reading: Hammett, Cain, Thompson and Chandler. In later years with the internet and all the wonders it brings, I tracked down lots of short stories that were originally (and in some cases, only) published in magazines like True Detective and Black Mask.

And then James Ellroy came on the scene in the 80s and 90s with his operatic, Grand Guignol L.A. Quartet. He took us through shady, ugly, racist, movie steeped, post-war Los Angeles, intertwining true crime and and hard boiled detectives with his own obsessions with race, depravity, violence and redemption. His canvas is enormous: Mike Hammer meets Hieronymus Bosch meets Kenneth Anger.

But recently I've been thinking. I've never really paid much attention to Westerns - I'm a city girl, through and through, and an East Coast one at that. Europe seems closer to me than Wyoming. But, like I said, I've been doing some thinking. Inspired mostly by the fact that my inamorato has been doing lots of Western movie research for a possible project. Most hard boiled fiction and noir takes place out west (Cornell Woolrich, I know, and a few others were in New York and placed a lot of their work there. Vera Caspray, with Laura, too). As I said, I know this is a generalization, but just bear with me here. I'm starting to think these two most American of genres are somehow linked. That the optimism of Western expansion turned into the cynicism of Noir when things didn't turn out as hoped. The wide open freedom of the plains and the West Coast and the deserts was taken over by greed and crime and rootlessness, and in some cases, despair. Or, maybe it was all of America and I'm just projecting outwards to some Western other.

I first discovered Megan Abbott by reading her brilliant article on V.C. Andrews in The Believer (co-authored with Sara Gran) about a year ago. I saw she was a Film Noir scholar and had a few novels out and got very interested. I read her second novel, The Song is You, and enjoyed it, but wasn't over the moon. It is set in 1950s L.A. amongst the publicists, B-Girls, reporters, and criminals who circle the movie business. For good or ill, and these are probably my own prejudices talking, when dealing with this milieu, I can't help but think of it at this point as Ellroy's Los Angeles which I know isn't entirely fair. She glances against the kind of depravity that I think James Ellroy needs to write about, but in her book it felt a little tentative: Ellroy-lite. But she's a good writer and gets the period top to bottom. I have a little bit of a Barbara Peyton fascination, so it was fun to see her make a guest appearance.

Then, I read Bury Me Deep and it was a fucking revelation. Let me apologize, Miss Abbott, for not giving you your due as a writer of hard boiled detective fiction, because your most recent book blew a hole right through my skull. It's set in an unnamed Phoenix, Arizona around 1930. As seen here, it reminded me of Hammett's Poisonville or Chandler's Bay City: a mid-sized town out west that is rotten to its core, corrupting all its residents just by touching them. She wears her Depression-era period lightly and well, no info dumps, no explanations. The book just inhabits it. Her prose is sparse and tough and smart. In it, Marion, a previously naive mid-western preacher's daughter, is left alone by her morphine addicted doctor husband when he gets a job with a mining company down in Mexico. Abbott gets deep inside of Marion's head, and in some ways it's inverse noir. Hard boiled crime novels are all about the point of view as no one is ever really innocent. In a traditional hard boiled fiction or noir film, it is seen from the man's perspective. Marion starts off as an innocent, but as the book lives in a city and a world where all women alone are whores, she could, in another story, by a different writer, be painted as a shady noir dame.

This is taught thriller writing at its very, very best. Abbott based her story partly on infamous "Trunk Murderess" Winnie Judd, but giving her a fictional third act. I don't want to give too much away, but it was this book that really, oddly, made me start to think about the Noir/Western continuum, and the ways in which both these genres are somewhat relegated to the historical. I've written about this before, but to a large extent our right as Americans to live freely and reinvent ourselves has been completely shattered. I'm not going to argue here about the reasons for it, or whether it's a good or bad thing, the point is that one can no longer get on a train in Philadelphia, take it out to California, cut all ties and become somebody else. Not really. It's hard to be that shady for too long in the age of the internet and social security numbers. Abbott's wonderful, fictional third act would be an impossibility. Marion and her husband came out west, like so many of the characters in Ellroy and Cain and Chandler (hell, like Chandler himself) to make new lives where nobody knew them, and to a certain extent succeeded. What tripped them up, of course, was never a well thought out computer background check, but this wicked world and their own dark natures. Which is a different thing entirely.

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