Since the publication of 2005’s Die a Little, critics have been besotted with Megan Abbott’s dark tales, dubbing her the “reigning princess of noir” and the “heir apparent to Hammett and Chandler.” Leading crime writers — Laura Lippman, James Ellroy, Lisa Scottoline — have sung her praises, and three of her books — Die a Little, Queenpin, and 2008’s The Song Is You — have been nominated for Edgar Awards, with Queenpin taking home the prize.
With boldness and understated grace, Abbott’s books replace the macho anxiety that motors classic noir fiction with a feminine desire and cunning, tenderly evoked in her heroines — be they molls, killers, secretaries, or starlets. In Abbott’s world, crime is both a descent and a revel, and like Patricia Highsmith before her, she limns the psychology of the criminal while entrancing us with the details of their seductive, reckless lives, elegantly careening toward “mayhem and blood and preening sorrow.”
Her newest book, Bury Me Deep, offers us Marion Seeley, a proper young newlywed drawn to the decadent ways of some Jazz Age sirens. This summer, in two email conversations with Rebecca Godfrey, Megan Abbott spoke about femmes fatales, true crime, The Wire, sex scenes, obsessive research, detectives, and the resurgence of noir.
The Barnes & Noble Review: The heroine of your new novel is based on a woman labeled the Blonde Butcher. Can you talk a bit about her crime and how you learned of it?
Megan Abbott: Yes, the book’s loosely based on this famous tabloid case known as the Winnie Ruth Judd Trunk Murders. It happened in Phoenix during the depths of the Great Depression. Winnie Ruth, this naive young women married to a much older man, was left to fend for herself while her husband went to Mexico for work. She became fast friends with two of the town’s young women. The tabloids would later call them party girls and refer to “thrill parties” held at their home. Lonely and swept up in it all, Winnie Ruth fell hard for one of these men, this dashing young comer named Jack Halloran. Their affair upset the balance of power among the women and, under circumstances that are still unclear, led to a double murder.
I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t know about the case. As a reader of true-crime since I was very young, I was always coming upon her name in books about women criminals. Generally, she was portrayed either as a wild-eyed lunatic, or as this gorgeous femme fatale. A few years ago, I picked up Jana Bommersbach’s wonderful book about the case, and it was like a revelation. There was so much more to the tale than the “trunk murderess” legend. The real story was actually much more shocking and much more poignant.
BNR: Your earlier books share some of the clipped, tough prose you find in Chandler or Ellroy, with sentences like, “She got me in with the hard boys, the fast money, and I couldn’t get enough,” but Bury Me Deep has more lyrical, almost incantatory, passages.
MA: Queenpinwas my most conscious effort to write a book set not in the real world but in “noir world.” So I just sort of let loose with the hardboiled talk. Plus, I really loved the idea of a woman talking that way for a whole book.
For Bury Me Deep, the setting to me was Marion’s fevered head. I wanted it to look, sound and feel like the perspective of a 1930s woman in well over her head. I wanted the prose to match her, and she’s sort of in this lonely, excited place, filled with longing. And I wanted the prose also to feel like the 1930s — that period before sound films really took over, a time of regionalism, when language was far more idiosyncratic.
BNR: Queenpin also features a complicated femme fatale character, a 1950s gangland leader — a kind of female Tony Soprano, albeit beautiful. Were there really women like that in the era of Bugsy Siegel?
MA: A big inspiration was Virginia Hill, who today is remembered — if she’s remembered at all — as the girl Bugsy Siegel named the Flamingo Hotel after. “Flamingo” was reportedly her nickname — a reference to her long legs. I read a biography that showed she had more real power than any moll. She moved money and jewels for the mob, flew to Switzerland to set up bank accounts, placed their bets at the tracks — for many years. She fascinated me because she lasted so long in that dangerous world. This poor country gal from Alabama and she held all the secrets.
BNR: Amazing. How did you find out about her?
MA: I’ve been reading books about the mob as long as I can remember — books like, We Only Kill Each Other — and her name would come up. Stories about her always conflicted with one another. She’s portrayed by Annette Bening in Warren Beatty’s movie Bugsy, but only as Bugsy’s lady love. It has little connection to the real Virginia. She was already legendary by the time she met Bugsy Siegel.
BNR: All your books evoke this dark, glittering, bygone world — whether it’s the Jazz Age in Bury Me Deep or the underworld of L.A. in the ’50s. There’s molls, morphine, train rides, tabloid reporters. What appeals to you about those eras? Why not write a contemporary noir?
MA: It’s very hard for me to write contemporary settings, although I’m doing it now. I think it has to do with the reason I write — which is to escape. There’s no escape for me if I’m writing about cell phones and my morning commute from Queens. And my dream world, since I was a little kid has always been the one I first found in old movies. I’m always trying to crawl my way back there. To close my eyes and end up in a Jean Harlow movie or a banquette at 21.
BNR: When did you first discover those old movies?
MA: When I was very young. I’d say six or seven. They used to show Saturday and Sunday morning movies on the UHF channel in Detroit. It started with Shirley Temple and Abbott and Costello and then eventually movies like Public Enemy and Dinner at Eight. I don’t think I even saw them as old movies. They felt so vivid to me. As a kid, I loved all the noir movies. It was a real escape fantasy from suburbia. The world in them, while dark and treacherous, seemed unbelievably exciting to me. I’ve never really let go of that feeling. I think the moral logic of it also appealed to me. The idea that one mistake, one surrender to desire, can destroy you — the extremity of it fascinated me, and still does. The notion that we’re all prisoners of our own drives.
BNR: You first approached noir from a critical stance, writing an academic book on the genre. (The Street Is Mine). Why did you decide to start writing your own fiction?
MA: In graduate school, I was searching for a dissertation topic. My focus was midcentury American fiction, and around that time, my husband gave me two books — Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep and James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. I knew the film adaptations, but I’d never read the books. Reading them back to back, it was like falling in love. I was completely captivated. It seemed like this vivid window into the America of that time period. So I chose hardboiled crime fiction and film noir, focusing on the figure of the “tough guy.” At first glance, he seems like an escapist fantasy, but as I read the books, I began to see him as more complicated – an embattled, beset figure — a man who increasingly feels he has no place in the world.
Reading all those novels in a row — almost nonstop for two years
— I found myself wanting to write my way into their shimmery world. I started my first novel, Die a Little, during that time. I made my main character a 1950’s school teacher who finds herself in L.A.’s undeent and offering the urgency of a current story. They draw you into the argot, the details of their time, but you never feel like you’re reading a timepiece, something trapped in amber.
BNR: You’ve been praised by James Ellroy. Was he an influence?
MA: A tremendous influence. I first read him in high school and I just fell hook, line and sinker. His books were portraying the world I loved in movies — L.A. in the ’40s and ’50s — but he also lifted the veil and showed all the darkness underneath. That contrast fascinated me, as did his male characters, and I’ve read everything he’s written. My first two books are really lovesongs to him.
BNR: Your books have a great deal of longing and desire in them, and can be startling to read , because the sex scenes, particularly in Bury Me Deep, are often rough and dark. I felt like I hadn?t really read scenes like yours before, particularly in noir where the sex is always alluded to.
MA: It’s definitely more explicit than in classic noir, where much of its darker edges seem to get sublimated. I think sometimes it feels more explicit than it is because my heroines are, from the outside, unlikely to have these transgressive desires. It’s funny but there’re certain things I would never write in a sex scene — certain language I’d never use. I write them trying to convey how it is for these women, whose shame actually drives the pleasure. That combination feels tricky and unnerving to me, but I keep being drawn to it.
BNR: Have you ever been asked to tone it down?
MA: No, never. It’s never even come up. Of course, I will never be half as dirty as Vicki Hendricks, for instance, whose wonderful noir novels really push the edge. Her first book is a contemporary retelling of The Postman Always Rings Twice called Miami Purity. Great book.
BNR: Why do you think so many literary novelists (Jonathan Lethem, Denis Johnson, Thomas Pynchon) have tried their hand at writing detective novels?
MA: I think they’re all writing these out of a love of the genre. In the case of Lethem, for instance, you can feel his Chandler love all over Motherless Brooklyn. Sometimes it’s frustrating to read the reviews because they often make sly comments about these authors slumming in genre fiction. That divide never seems to truly go away — although I don’t think readers think that way.
A huge bridge of sorts has been The Wire. Since novelists like George Pelecanos and Richard Price and Dennis Lehane have written for it, it just seems to be this wonderful hybrid of crime fiction and Dickensian social novels. Every writers’ conference I go to, we all talk about it endlessly, parsing its brilliance. And I think in part it’s made it even more acceptable and sexy to write crime fiction. That crime fiction doesn’t mean you have to pull out some formula and plug “A” into “B.” Many crime novels show that too, but The Wire put it on TV week after week.
BNR: Our society seems transfixed by crime right now — even when it’s not explored in an artful way — with the constant investigations of Nancy Grace, CSI, Law & Order.
MA: I think a big part if the rising paranoia. The more we lose our privacy, the more things seem out of our control, the more treacherous a place the world seems. And we both want to see that portrayed (and our feelings confirmed), and we want to see it contained. Wrapped neatly. Solved by the law or science.
BNR: That’s interesting. Do you watch those shows?
MA: No, but I do love true-crime documentaries, Tru-TV stuff. I guess I like the messier explorations. And now that I think of it, that’s just a different kind of confirmation and containment (my view of the world as messy place). But there you go!
BNR: You mentioned earlier that you studied film noir and were influenced by those films as a young girl. Do you find images or characters from noir films inspire your writing? And if so, which actresses or films?
MA: Each book has sort of had its own set of inspirations, but some come back again and again. In a Lonely Place, with Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart. A very romantic and dark noir. They live across from each other in these quintessential L.A. courtyard apartments, and I feel like I write that locale into all my books. For The Song Is You, it was William Holden in Sunset Boulevard and Tony Curtis fromSweet Smell of Success. For Queenpin, it was Angelica Huston in The Grifters. For Bury Me Deep, it’s a set of tawdry pre-Code movies — Three on a Match, Hold Your Man. It’s the way I find my way into the book.
BNR: Your books are very cinematic. Do you think of them that way when you’re writing?
MA: Yes. I really picture them as movies. Even down to the way it’s shot. I try to approximate the camera with language. If I can imagine the camera going into close up or landing on some object, I try to draw the reader to that. There’s several scenes in Queenpin that are directly inspired by scenes in Goodfellas.
BNR: Die a Little is being developed by Jessica Biel. It seems like a wonderful role for a young actress. Do you know how she found the book?
MA: I think through my film agent, but I’m not sure. It seems like actresses are always looking for parts that aren’t the girlfriend or the stripper.
BNR: So many contemporary actresses seem to end up playing a stripper. It almost seems mandatory.
MA: I wonder how it compares to the number of strippers per capita in the United States. If Hollywood mirrored real life, it seems like the odds are either you or I should be a stripper.
BNR: With a heart of gold of course….
MA: Is there any other kind?
BNR: Are you ever tempted to write a screenplay?
MA: I’d like to try, although I haven’t yet. It’s such a different language. I think adapting one’s own work would be a real challenge. Talk about killing your babies. I also find it hard to return to my own books. I lose a sense of how they were “built.” I think screenwriting is a true and separate talent.
BNR: What do you think of the heroines in contemporary crime novels — characters like V.I. Warshawski or Kinsey Milhone? They’re almost anti-noir — resolutely unglamorous.
MA: I think they’re the game-changers, and all women crime novelists reap the rewards. Thank god for them. I think in terms of my own subject matter, I’m still a sucker for the perfumed satin and low lights.
BNR: You mentioned that you’re writing a contemporary crime novel.
MA: At first, it was really difficult. I just couldn’t find a way in. But I ended up taking the point of view of a 13-year-old girl, and that changed everything. The world to a 13-year-old girl — or at least many of them — is so glamorous and terrifying and enticing. It gave me a way to write about “now.”
BNR: I confess I was a little disappointed when you told me you were writing a contemporary story. Perhaps because I’d miss your evocations of what you’ve termed a “shimmery place.”
MA: Yes — I’m trying to find the shimmer in the voice. In many ways, it felt important — I didn’t want to rely too much on those details I love so much — the satin and furs thing. I have certain crutches — for instance, I could write 1940s nightclub scenes forever and never stop. When you can’t go to your “go-tos,” you have to find other ways. And that’s been exciting.