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By the author of Dare Me and The End of Everything
Femmes fatales. Obsessive love. Double crosses. How does a respectable young woman fall into Los Angeles’s hard-boiled underworld?
Shadow-dodging through the glamorous world of 1950s Hollywood and its seedy flip side, Megan Abbott’s debut, Die a Little, is a gem of the darkest hue. This ingenious twist on a classic noir tale tells the story of Lora King, a schoolteacher, and her brother Bill, a...
By the author of Dare Me and The End of Everything
Femmes fatales. Obsessive love. Double crosses. How does a respectable young woman fall into Los Angeles’s hard-boiled underworld?
Shadow-dodging through the glamorous world of 1950s Hollywood and its seedy flip side, Megan Abbott’s debut, Die a Little, is a gem of the darkest hue. This ingenious twist on a classic noir tale tells the story of Lora King, a schoolteacher, and her brother Bill, a junior investigator with the district attorney’s office. Lora’s comfortable, suburban life is jarringly disrupted when Bill falls in love with a mysterious young woman named Alice Steele, a Hollywood wardrobe assistant with a murky past.
Made sisters by marriage but not by choice, the bond between Lora and Alice is marred by envy and mistrust. Spurred on by inconsistencies in Alice’s personal history and possibly jealous of Alice’s hold on her brother, Lora finds herself lured into the dark alleys and mean streets of seamy Los Angeles. Assuming the role of amateur detective, she uncovers a shadowy world of drugs, prostitution, and ultimately, murder.
Lora's fascination with Alice’s "sins" increases in direct proportion to the escalation of her own relationship with Mike Standish, a charmingly amoral press agent who appears to know more about his old friend Alice than he reveals. The deeper Lora digs to uncover Alice’s secrets, the more her own life begins to resemble Alice’s sinister past—and present.
Steeped in atmospheric suspense and voyeuristic appeal, Die a Little shines as a dark star among Hollywood lights.
When he began as a patrolman, he had to wear a cap on duty, but it seemed to him far less hot in California than in the South, and he bore up. After he became a junior investigator for the district attorney, he never wore a hat again. People often commented on it, but I was always glad. Seeing his bristly yellow hair, the same as when he was ten years old, it was a reminder that he still belonged to our family, no matter where we'd move or what new people came into our lives.
I used to cut my brother's hair in our kitchen every week. We would drink cola from the bottle and put on music and lay down newspapers, and I would walk around him in my apron and press my hand to his neck and forehead and trim away as he told me about work, about the cases, about the other junior investigators and their stories. About the power-madD.A. and his shiny-faced toadies. About the brave cops and the crooked ones. About all the witnesses, all his days spent trailing witnesses who always seemed like so much smoke dissolving into the rafters. His days filled with empty apartments, freshly extinguished cigarettes, radios still warm, curtains blowing through open windows, fire escapes still shuddering ...
When I finished the cut, I'd hold out the gilt hand mirror from my mother's old vanity set and he would appraise the job. He never said anything but "That's it, Sis," or "You're the best." Sometimes, I would see a missed strand, or an uneven ledge over his ear, but he never would. It was always, "Perfect, Sis. You've got the touch."
Hours afterward, I would find slim, beaten gold bristles on my fingers, my arms, no matter how careful I was. I'd blow them off my fingertips, one by one.
For their honeymoon, just before New Year's 1954, my brother and his new wife went to Cuba for six days. It was Alice's idea. Bill happily agreed, though his first choice had been Niagara Falls, as was recommended by most of the other married couples we knew.
They came back floating on a cloud of their own beauty, their own gorgeous besottedness. It felt vaguely lewd even to look at them. They seemed to be all body. They seemed to be wearing their insides too close to the surface of their skin.
There is a picture of Alice. The photographer - I'm not sure who it was - was ostensibly taking a picture of our godparents, the Conrans, on their thirtieth wedding anniversary. But the photographer snapped too late, and Uncle Wendell and Aunt Norma are beginning to exit the frame with the embarrassed elation of those unused to such attention and eager to end it, and what you see instead is Alice's back.
She is wearing a demure black silk cocktail dress with a low-cut V in the back, and her alabaster skin is spread across the frame, pillowing out of the silk and curving sharply into her dark hair. The jut of her shoulder blades and the angular tilt of her cocked arm draw the eye irresistibly. So like Alice. She didn't even need to show her face or have a voice to demand complete attention.
It had all begun not six months before.
My chest felt flooded by my own heart. I could hardly speak, hardly breathe the whole way to the hospital, lights flashing over me, my mind careering. They said, "What is your relation to William King?"
"Are you his wife?"
"What's wrong with my brother?"
But he was fine. He was fine. I was running down the hospital corridor, shins aching from my heels hitting the floor so hard. I was running when I heard his voice echoing, laughing, saw his downy, taffy-colored hair, his handsome, stubby-nosed profile, his hand rubbing the back of his head as he sat on a gurney, smeary smile on his face.
"Lora." He turned, speaking firmly to calm me, to strip the tight fear from my face. Hand out to grab my arm and stop me from plowing clear into him, he said, "I'm fine. I just hit my head, got knocked out, but I'm fine."
"Fine," I repeated, as if to fix it.
His jacket over his arm, his collar askew, he had, I noted with a shiver, a break of browning blood on his shirt.
"Someone hit your car?"
"Nah. Nearly did, but I swerved out of the way. The driver kept going off the road and into a telephone pole. I stopped to help her, and while I was trying to get her out of her car, another car rear-ended it and knocked us both down. It was some show."
He laughed when he said it, which was how I knew the driver was young and pretty, and troubling and helpless, all of which seemed, suddenly to me, to be just what he wanted, what he had been waiting for all along. It happened just like that. I realized it about him just like that, without ever having thought it before.
"Is she all right?"
"She had a concussion, but she's okay. She sprained her wrist trying to break her fall." He touched his own wrist as he said it, with great delicacy. This gesture confirmed it all.
"Why did she veer off the road? What was wrong with her?"
"Wrong? I don't know. I never even ..."
When the sergeant came by to get more details for his report, he told us that the woman, Alice Steele, would be released momentarily. I asked him if she had been drinking, and he said he didn't think so.
"No, definitely not. She was completely coherent," my brother assured us both. The young sergeant respectfully nodded.
Her eyebrows, plucked and curvilinear like a movie star's, danced around as she spoke: My, how embarrassing - not just embarrassing but unforgivable - her actions were. She never should have been driving after taking a sedative even if it was hours before and never should have been driving on such a crowded road when she was so upset and crying over some complications in her life and with the rush to get to her friend Patsy's apartment because Patsy's boyfriend had hit her in the face with an ashtray. And, oh God, she wondered, what had happened to Patsy since she was never able to get there because of the accident. Would Patsy be all right? If there were scars, her modeling career would end in a heartbeat, and that would mean more trouble for Patsy, who'd had more than her share already.
Watching, listening, I imagined that this would be how this new woman in my brother's life would always talk, would always be. As it turned out, however, she rarely spoke so hazardously, so immoderately.
She had a small wound on her forehead, like a scarlet lip. It was this wound, I calculated, that had flowed onto my brother's shirtfront. A nurse was sewing stitches into it with long, sloping strokes the entire time she spoke to me.
I tried not to watch too closely as the wound transmuted from labial-soft and deep red to a thin, sharp, crosshatched line with only a trace of pucker. The nurse kept murmuring, "Don't move, don't move," as Alice gestured, twisting with every turn of phrase, never wincing, only offering an occasional squint at the inconvenience.
"Lora. Lora King," I answered.
"You're the wife of my knight in shining armor?"
"No. The sister."
"I'm Alice. Alice Steele. You're smiling."
"No. Not at you."
"Where is that heroic brother of yours, anyway? Don't tell me he's left?"
"No. He's here. He's waiting."
A smile appeared quickly and then disappeared, as if she decided it gave away too much. As if she thought I didn't know.
The three of us in my sedan. I drove them to Bill's car, which was unharmed. I knew he would offer to drive her home and he did and they vanished into his sturdy Chevy like circling dangers. Patti Page trilled from the radio of his car as it drove off. I sat and listened until I couldn't hear it any longer. Then I drove home.
At first, it was the pretext of checking on her recovery.
Then, it was his friend Alice, who needed a ride to the studio, where she worked in the costume department as a seamstress's assistant. She lived with a girlfriend named Joan in a rooming house somewhere downtown.
Then, it was Alice, who had bought him the new tie he wore, with the thin periwinkle stripe.
Next, it was Alice, with whom he'd had chop suey because he happened to be by the studio around lunchtime.
At last, it was Alice over for dinner, wearing a gold blouse and heels and bringing a basket of pomegranates spiced with rum.
I prepared ham with pineapple rings and scalloped potatoes and a bowl of green beans with butter. Alice smoked through the whole meal, sipping elegantly from her glass and seeming to eat but never getting any closer to the bottom of her plate. She listened to my brother avidly, eyes shimmering, and complimented me on everything, her shoe dangling from her foot faintly but ceaselessly. It would be true in all the time I knew Alice that she would never, ever stop moving.
She asked many questions about our childhood, the different places we'd lived, our favorite homes, how we'd ended up in California and why we'd stayed. She asked me if I enjoyed teaching high school and how we'd found such a lovely house and if we liked living away from downtown Los Angeles. She asked me where I got my hair done and if I sewed and whether I enjoyed having a yard because she had "always lived in apartments and had never had more than a potted plant and no green thumb besides, but who cares about that, tell me instead about how you keep such lovely petunias in this dry weather and does Bill help at all or is he too busy playing cops and robbers," with a wink and blinding smile toward my rapt brother.
* * *
Five months to the day after they met, they decided to marry. The night they told me, I remember there had been a tug over my eye all day. A persistent twitch that wouldn't give. Driving to the restaurant to meet them, I feared the twitch would come at the wrong moment and send me headlong into oncoming traffic.
As I walked in, she was facing my freshly shaved and bright-faced brother, who was all shine and smile. I saw her shoulders rise like a blooming heart out of an hourglass puce-colored dress. He was towering over her, and she was adjusting his pocket square with dainty fingers. From the shimmer lining my dear brother's face, from the tightness in his eyes, I knew it was long over.
The day before they were married, we moved Alice's things from the rooming house in which she'd been living for over a year. It was a large place in Bunker Hill, a house that had once been very grand and now had turned shaggy, with a bucket of sand for cigarettes at the foot of its spiraling mahogany staircase.
Apparently, Bill had been trying to get her to move out since he first visited her there. "I know places like this. I spend days knocking down the doors of places like this," he had told her. "It's no place for you."
But, according to him, she only laughed and touched his arm and said that he should have seen her last place, in a bungalow court where, the first night she spent there, a man stabbed his girlfriend in the stomach with her knitting needle, or a fork, she couldn't remember which. "She was all right," Alice had assured him. "It wasn't deep."
When we helped her pack up, I noticed how many clothes Alice had, and how immaculately she kept them, soft sweaters nestled in stacks of plastic sleeves, hatboxes interlocked like puzzle pieces in the top of her closet, shoes in felt bags, heels stroked in cotton tufts to keep them from being scratched by the hanging shoe tree, dresses with pillowy skirts tamed by sweeping curls of tissue paper or shells of crinkly crepe.
Alice smiled warmly as I marveled at each glorious confection. She said she accumulated most of the clothes from her work at the studio. The seamstresses were often allowed to take cast-off garments deemed too damaged or too worn. No clothes or costumes were ever supposed to be given away but used over and over until the fabric dissolved like sugar. At a certain point, however, the clothes were passed to the girls, either because the designers could do nothing more with them, or as a favor or trade for extra or special work.
So after five years of studio work, Alice had accumulated quite an array of repaired clothes, the most glorious being a dress Claudette Colbert had worn, which was nearly impossible to put on or off. It was a delicate black velvet with netting around the neck, and it made Alice's small chest look positively architectural, like cream alabaster jutting up from her wasp waist.
Our godparents hosted the wedding party after the ceremony at City Hall. The other junior investigators from the D.A.'s office and my fellow teachers from Westridge School for Girls filled the small house.
No one came from Alice's family. Her only guests were a few coworkers from the studio, who sat on a corner couch, smoking and straightening their stockings.
At the time, she said that she had no family to invite, that she was orphaned and alone. She was a native Southern Californian, if there was such a thing. She was born in Santa Monica Hospital to a domestic with Hollywood aspirations and a recently discharged chauffeur. That was all we really knew.
At the party, my eyes could barely leave her, this woman who had entered our life and planted herself so firmly at its sharp center.
She buzzed around the party, hovering with large, rain pail eyes, a body compact, pulled taut over every angle, raw-boned, and a few years or a few ounces away from gaunt, ghostly. Her appeal was a kind of thrilling nervous energy, a railrack laugh that split her face in gleaming abandon.
There was a glamour to her, in her unconventional beauty, in her faintly red-rimmed eyes and the bristly, inky lashes sparking out of them, blinking incessantly, anxiously. Her hair was always perfectly coiffed, always shining and engineered, her lips artfully painted magenta. When she'd turn that black-haired head of hers, a collarbone would pop out disturbingly. She had no curves. She was barely a woman at all, and yet she seemed hopelessly feminine, from her airy walk, her muzzy, bobbing gesticulations, her pointy-toed shoes, and the spangly costume jewelry dangling from her delicate wrists.
* * *
Even though Bill and Alice repeatedly urged me to live with them, I moved into a small apartment while they honeymooned.
"I can't imagine you two apart. What is Bill without Lora? Lora without Bill?" Alice would say, dark eyes pounding.
"I'll be closer to school.
Excerpted from Die a Little by Megan E. Abbott Copyright © 2005 by Megan E. Abbott. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted October 17, 2014
This is the 3rd book by Abbott I've read and it was good, but I would recommend Queenpin over this one. Still worth a read and still entertaining.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 23, 2007
Although advertised as a mystery, this story is more of a suspense/thriller, with very few surpises. Certainly the combination of the 1950s and Hollywood add an attraction to the book. However, it lacks any serious punch, and much of the story as told by Lora sounds as if she is in a dream state. The author appears to be trying to attain a foggy, poetic atmosphere, with ambiguous phrases ending each scene. Not a waste of time, but certainly not one to get your hopes up about.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 2, 2005
After reading the rave reviews of this book on this website I bought the book. What a bore. Nothing, and I mean nothing, happens in this book for the first hundred pages. In a 241 page book that's pretty bad. I kept waiting for an interesting plot to develope. Even when the story finally started to develope it was very predictable and not even original. This is the type of book the critics may label as great literature but to me it was a well written bore.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 7, 2005
Die a Little was one of the most compelling novels I've read in a long time, which is unusual for a complex story that's really so much more than a mystery. It is filled with evocative images that will linger long after you close the book. I wish I could read it again for the first time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 14, 2005
Die A Little by Megan Abbott is delightful! I want everyone to know that it is a superb read! The book has all the suspense, drama and remarkable plot twists of a seasoned mystery writer. The plot is cast against a backdrop of the 1950s and the author manages to pack each word with extraordinary momentum and the seedy allure of the era. The character development is magnificent, and the reader is given only the information necessary to maintain an insatiable curiosity about what will happen next while racing to turn the next page. Count me in as one reader who is hoping the sequel is in the works!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 22, 2005
I loved this book. It's everything you wish 'chick lit' could be. Megan Abbott wrote an amazing book and I pray it becomes a movie. I love her characters and the way she sets the tone of LA in the 50's. I wish it was longer. I didn't want it to end. Does anyone know if she has any other books? I did a search but just came up with some essays. I had to pace myself while reading it because I wanted to read it all in one sitting. It's like one of those books that make you sad when you're done reading it because you can't read it again for the first time. Also, unlike lots of recent novels by women, I think this appeals to both sexes. I am getting it for everyone this year as a gift.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 21, 2004
After reading the first page, I was hooked. I think I read it in two sittings. This book is set in 1950s Los Angeles, but the characters - and their flaws and strengths - are timely and provide an interesting contrast for today's moral grey areas. The story makes you think even after you are done reading it. And, unlike many of today's new authors, Abbott is a gifted storyteller and you cannot avoid but becoming immersed in her world. Give this as a gift and get a copy for yourself.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
Schoolteacher Lora King shares a home with her brother Bill, an investigator with the Los Angeles District Attorney¿s office. They are decent middle class hardworking people who are very close to each other until Alice Steele enters their lives. Bill is besotted with her and within a few months he marries her. Lora tries to like her but she feels that Alice is trying too hard to be the perfect housewife.--- Seeing inconsistencies in her behavior, Lora investigates Alice¿s background which leads to her to thinking her in-law is involved in something criminal. A friend Lois from Alice¿s former life acts trashy as she depends on Alice to bail her out when she gets into trouble. Alice befriends the wife of Bill¿s friend, who shortly thereafter commits suicide just prior to Lois being murdered. It is only when Bill is prepared to break the law to abet his wife does Lora act to put an end to Alice¿s influence with the help of a very connected criminal who bears no love for Alice.--- DIE A LITTLE is a dark urban 1950s Hollywood noir where even honest lawmen break the law if they can get away with it. Lora is a fascinating character who loves her brother too much to let him throw his life away on a criminal and is a bit jealous of the hold Alice has on her sibling. There are no heroes in this book, only people who do what is necessary to get their own way. Megan Abbott is a fine writer who uses the first person narrative as a way of increasing the tension and the gradual feeling of overwhelming foreboding.--- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 23, 2010
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