Good Reading : November 2008
author profile gangster’s moll Virginia Hill. The long- legged redhead known as ‘the Flamingo’ was an alleged associate and mistress of mobster Bugsy Siegal. He supposedly built and named the Las Vegas Flamingo Hotel for her. ‘She had a lot of power in the mob and she wasn’t just a girlfriend,’ says Abbott. ‘They really trusted her. She would move money for them, she would place bets at the track for them, she would move jewels and take money over to Swiss bank accounts. She carried all the secrets and she lasted a long time. I wanted to write a book about a woman like that and then I loved all the old crime novels about the ageing criminal schooling the young guy in the life of crime and I wanted to do a female version of that.’ Things go awry and get inevitably worse when the young protégée (the book’s narrator) makes the big mistake of falling for Mr Wrong. Reading Abbott’s novels is a cinematic experience. To start with, the covers by New York artist Richard Fahey are like movie stills. He stages a fully styled photo shoot and then paints over the photo to achieve its movie- poster quality. The dialogue is replete with its slick one-liners and romantic verbal tussles between ritzy dames and tough guys and you can see the moving pictures as you read. In order to set the mood for writing this world, Abbott surrounds herself with her collection of ephemera, including old matchbooks, swizzle sticks and menus from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. When writing The Song is You she was inspired by pictures of William Holden from Sunset Boulevard and Tony Curtis from Sweet Smell of ‘She had a lot of power in the mob and she wasn’t just a girlfriend. They trusted her.’ Success and of course, a picture of Jean Spangler. With their filmic qualities, it’s no wonder that one of the novels has already been optioned for a movie. Actress Jessica Biel bought the film rights to Die a Little, intending to play the role of femme fatale Alice. So how will the author be involved? ‘They wrote me a cheque,’ Abbott laughs. The Street Was Mine: White masculinity in hardboiled fiction and film noir is based on Abbott’s dissertation. It described the rise of one of noir’s main archetypes, the ‘tough guy’, an urban reincarnation of the earlier hero of the western: the pioneering white man who goes out to conquer the wilderness (see gr October 2008). It explores the idea that in the 1930s (during the depression) and the 1940s (with the war) there was a feeling of male impotence and emasculation because men could no longer be breadwinners taking care of their families. They then had to go off to war, knowing women were possibly doing their jobs, or taking up with other men. ‘The “tough guy” figure emerges because he brings the promise of a really secure 24 goodreading i NOVEMBER 2008 masculinity,’ Abbott explains. ‘This guy can solve everything because he lives and works alone. He doesn’t have a wife or children and he relies on no-one. James Bond is a later version of that. This guy is so free and he becomes a fantasy of masculine re-empowerment.’ African American crime writer Chester Himes, whom Abbott also studied for her dissertation, overturned the traditional tough guy model by writing black detectives into his ‘Harlem Detective’ novels. Born in the US, Himes later moved to France and wrote as an expat incorporating a lot about his experience of racist America into his books, which took some time to be recognised in the US. Though some may still be down on the genre, this hasn’t stopped Abbott from pursuing her love of it and she’s been praised by greats such as Lisa Scottoline and Ken Bruen. Her main idol, the master himself, James Ellroy has said of her: ‘Superb storyteller, film noir scholar, deconstructionist suffused with a true artist’s passion. Poised to ascend to the top rung of crime writing and quite possibly something beyond.’ So what’s next? Abbott has just finished her fourth novel, this one set in the 1930s in Phoenix, Arizona. ‘It was a lot of fun to write’, she says, telling me the book is based on the intriguing, true story of the ‘Trunk Murderess’ who was convicted of murdering her two female friends and stuffing their bodies into steamer trunks and shipping them across the country. Needless to say some dismemberment was involved and you can’t get more ‘femme fatale’ than that! So was it all for love? Can’t wait to read the book to find out. Die a Little and The Song is You are by Megan Abbott and are both published by Simon & Schuster, rrp $22.95ea. Queenpin is not yet available in Australian or New Zealand bookstores but is available online.
December January 2009