Friday, 11 July 2008


Do you know Jeri Southern’s version of Cole Porter’s ‘Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’? The next line in the song, of course, is ‘I want to die a little’. Southern recorded it in 1954, the year in which this novel is set. I first heard Southern’s version on Charlie Haden’s wonderful album Haunted Heart, on which his Quartet West played behind Southern’s original vocal. It’s both evocative and knowing in that context, and that is exactly the way I felt about Megan Abbott’s novel.

Lora King is a schoolteacher, living in Pasadena with her brother Bill, an investigator for LA’s district attorney. They are orphans, who have washed upin La La Land, as if without pasts, to live the post-war suburban American dream. Then Bill meets Alice Steele, a dish who’s been a wardrobe assistant in Hollywood, and they are quickly married, and Lora’s world is turned upside down. The suburban parties get a bit livelier, Bill gets a bit busier, and although Alice inserts herself into Lora’s world, there is something otherworldly about her. And as Lora gets drawn more deeply into that other world, the story takes on darker implications.

Abbott has done a brilliant job of building her tale through atmosphere. Film noir and pulp fictions of the 1950s lived in this territory, the world kept hidden from the shiny surface of the Eisenhower era dream. It’s the world on the covers of the paperback novels we collect and cherish now, the world of the feverish films of Sam Fuller or Joseph H Lewis. It’s Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club, hosting cops like JD Tippett and losers like Lee Oswald. Lots of writers have visited there.

Where Abbott is different is in delineating the ambiguous nature of the line between the respectable and the not so respectable, as if one were the funhouse mirror image of the other. Her suburban parties start out antiseptic on the surface, but soon the reader is getting suffocated by the smells of perfume, hair tonic, highballs, and cigarette smoke; the sweaty desperation of too much close dancing in too small rooms. So as Lora dates her studio publicity fixer, as she moves closer to the ‘other side’, you realise that yin and 50s yang are not that far apart. The title track on Haunted Heart was a hit for Jo Stafford in 1947, and like Jeri Southern's song, I was taken by her singing it with Haden and group behind. But if you go back and listen to the original, with its syrupy big-band arrangement by Stafford's husband, bandleader Paul Weston, you begin to sense the distance between the torch underneath and the sticky song on the mainstream hit parade.

Die A Little is like Dorothy B Hughes or Elisabeth Sanxay Holding rewritten by David Goodis. But though she mines the era's genre, she also manages to avoid the trap of seeming to deconstruct them; she isn’t clinical about her story, characters, or style, the way the Coen brothers were in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Everything happens within the framework of the tale. There are occasional anachronisms, or knowing bits propelled by hindsight, but it rings true as Lora’s descent into the dark side of the 1950s leaves her trapped, and she can get out only by repressing those impulses even as she acts on them. Repression is at the heart of this book, as it was, perhaps in the Fifties. Calling Dr Wertheim! Megan Abbott has written an atmospheric thriller which works on any number of levels. It’s being made into a movie with Jessica Biel, which hopefully will go a bit deeper than say, Hilary Swank and Scarlett Johanssen enjoying the chance for thick red lipstick and constant smoking in Black Dahlia.

By the way, James Ellroy gave this book a plug, and it’s easy to see why--there’s that same awareness of what America’s underbelly was, and is like. Die A Little was published in the States in 2005, and Abbott has written two more since then. The second, The Song Is You, apparently uses the disappearance of actress Jean Spangler as a springboard, like Ellroy used the Black Dahlia. The third, Queenpin, is apparently set in a corrupt little casino town, more Phenix City than Bugsy Siegel's Las Vegas. Definitely worth looking out for.

Die A Little

Megan Abbott
Pocket Books £6.99 ISBN 9781847393463

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