“And he went to premieres with the glimmering girls of the moment, lunch at the Derby, to the track with John Huston and his rough-living crowd. When someone needed to pick up the big-shot buccaneer at the drunk tank and slip some green to the blue, he sent Mike or Freddy or reliable old Bix. They kicked needles down sewer grates, slipped suicide notes into pockets, gave screen tests to hustlers quid pro quo. Hop had it taken care of. He had it fixed. Mr. Blue Sky. All from his chrome and mahogany office, cool and magisterial and pumped full of his own surging blood.”
—The Song is You (2007) by Megan Abbott
Edgar-winner Megan Abbott became a sort of soul mate in neo noir literature. Her tortuous and vibrant novels equal in ambiance to James Ellroy’s gritty and eerie L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia stories. Emulating hardboiled lingo to a T, Abbott recounts in her second mystery novel the strange circumstances surrounding the former Florentine Gardens dancer, model, actress and B-girl Jean Spangler, who disappeared from Los Angeles in 1949 after having completed a bit part in the film Young Man with a Horn with Kirk Douglas. In an alternate scenario created by Abbott, Gil “Hop” Hopkins (the publicist who helps to obscure the details of the investigation, favoring the movie studios’ pretense) has seen Jean and her best friend Iolene the last night in the Red Lily club in the company of creepy song-and-dance duo Marv Sutton and Gene Merrel, who have terrible reputations with dames.
Contrasting to the more classicist approach of the ‘Czar of Noir’ Eddie Muller (author of The Distance, one of my favorite crime novels, in which his indefatigable San Francisco sportswriter Billy Nichols tries to protect the heavyweight boxer Hack Escalante), Abbott’s style, although nailing the atmosphere and a feeling of true chronicle, is more on the emotional (not sentimental) side. She has written two more crime novels set in the past: Queenpin (the central character, gambling queen Gloria Denton is loosely inspired by Bugsy Siegel’s lover Virginia Hill) and Bury Me Deep (set in the 1930s, inspired by the true story of Winnie Ruth Judd, known as The Trunk Murderess). Both Muller and Abbott’s have a potent poetic flair in their narratives, which frames the plot and historical addendums.
Frannie Adair, an Examiner’s reporter who is interested in the Jean Spangler case, maintains a tense relationship with Hop based on professional rivalry that culminates in a romantic attraction, despite her character seeming almost undersexed compared to the other women in Hop’s life–as Midge, his ex-wife who had a platonic crush on Jean. Hopkins is a very accomplished finagler, turned into a successful PR rep in the lucrative Hollywood machine of 1950s. Whereas the detectives and dupes in the vintage noir films projected a stern aura of de rigueur morality and machismo, in The Song Is You and Die A Little (Abbott’s previous novel), we find a sharp transposition of the genre conventions, mainly throwing away the apparently solid male façades and showing us their filthy edges. Abbott’s detailed representation of complex femme fatales and their self-destructive impulses doesn’t betray a subjacent layer of feminine idiosyncrasies and multiple weaknesses associated to the sex-symbols and starlets in that particular era. More than a confrontation between genders, Abbott proves that both fall prey to a feverish machinery prepared to dislocate their dreams and deeply bury their souls.
While Die A Little constitutes a more orthodox effort to recreate the golden suburbia in the middle of the 20th century, The Song Is You is a more wide-ranging experience, outlining the glamour of old Hollywood and revealing the sub-terrestrial world of the drifters, hopefuls, wannabes and losers: the industry’s underclass that threatens to lift the lid off the Dream Factory. Combining echoes of Chandler’s Little Sister, Abbott entwines such real-life personalities as bombshell Barbara Payton (and her failed romances with Franchot Tone and Tom Neal), and aspiring actress Elizabeth Short (turned into the sad celebrity ‘The Black Dahlia’ due to her macabre murder): “Jean grinned broadly at her, a grin that split her face in two, eerie like a ventriloquist’s dummy, dark on a stage. She grinned broadly and in that grin she told Iolene, “All the stories in the world and I wouldn’t pass this up–I’ve seen bad things enough to shake the word “bad” loose from its roots. I can go to the far end of nothing with the best of them. I can pull the pin and roll.”
Hop embarks on a dark journey in the demimonde of Tinseltown, reluctantly fighting off his last vestiges of dignity when the demons begin to pile up precipitately inside his dormant conscience. There are melancholic winks to Raymond Chandler, especially in the last chapters “Reno, 1946” and “Merry Lake” (which contains the most disturbing twist in the novel).
In the manner of an epilogue, in “Four Years Later,” Hopkins has established himself as one of the big shots in the film industry:
“He spoke to the contract stars and the beauties who floated over from the other studios for a picture or two. They all came to him. Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, too, even Humphrey Bogart. And the women, Jeanne Crain, Doris Day, Jennifer Jones, Jane Wyman, Anne Baxter. They all came. And finer, less flinty fare in the up-andcomers: Janice Rule, Dorothy Malone, Jan Sterling, Carroll Baker. Every day. And, of course, the columnists—the rumor monkeys he worked like a carnival organ grinder. Walter still kicking around, Hedda, Louella, Sheilah, and all their lesser models—all dancing for him.”
Chandler’s femme fatale glowered at her destiny, she was more romantically evil and her sexuality more abstract; his hero Philip Marlowe was naïvely incorruptible and distant toward women. Abbott’s femme fatales (if we can call them so) are imperfect, suffer deep fears and painful resentments. And there are no smooth knights or tough guys who can heal their despair, just abusive bosses, sometimes a subspecies of man, or grifters who stroll through desolate spots, only to find their own scams in the end looking back at them in the mirror:
“There was something lost. He could look in the mirror a thousand times and he would never see it again. He’d snuffed it out. Had he known he’d never get it back… Had he known it would be gone forever… He opened the drawer to his bedside table and dug under the handkerchiefs, phone book, cigarettes, matchbooks. He pulled it out. It was thin as a cobweb now, this postcard. It had become delicate with time. Postcards, after all, aren’t meant to last. They’re less than a letter. They’re a fleeting thing. A whisper in the ear reminding you, ‘Merry Lake’s Waiting for You.’”