Megan Abbott has an interesting background. She earned a Ph.D. in English and American literature from New York University and she is the author of a non-fiction study of hardboiled or noir fiction and movies that grew out of her dissertation. She has taught literature, writing and film at New York University and the State University of New York at Oswego.
“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” goes the old saw, but Abbott decided she could do more than study and teach, she could write. Her first work of fiction, Die A Little, was nominated for a 2006 Edgar Award for Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America and a 2006 Barry Award and Anthony Award for Best First Novel.
When Abbott’s second novel, The Song Is You, was released it had garnered a spot on the TBR pile but, like so many other worthy books, I never did get to it. Now that her third novel, Queenpin, has just been released, I figured this would be a good time to finally read it.
In The Song Is You Abbott used the real life disappearance of Jean Spangler as a jumping off point for her own fictional account. The novel
tells the story of Gil â€œHopâ€ Hopkins, a smooth-talking Hollywood publicist whose career, despite a complicated personal life, is on the rise. It is 1951, two years after Jean Spanglerâ€™s disappearance and Hop finds himself unwillingly drawn into the still-unsolved mystery by a friend of Jeanâ€™s who blames Hop for concealing details about Jeanâ€™s whereabouts the night she vanished. Driven by guilt and fears of blackmail, Hop delves into the case himself, feverishly trying to stay one step ahead of an intrepid female reporter also chasing the story. Hop thought heâ€™d seen it all, but what he uncovers both tantalizes and horrifies him as he plunges deeper and deeper into Hollywoodâ€™s substratum in his attempt to uncover the truth.
Abbott clearly knows her noir (for a useful discussion of the genre see here) as she writes clearly from within that tradition (although she claims the film version as her biggest influence). The Song Is You certainly has “the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters.” As well as the “the gritty realism.” So if you like noir inspired by 1940s and 1950’s films you will like The Song Is You and Abbott’s work generally. (It is good to keep in my mind this really isnâ€™t family friendly fare: plenty of sex, violence, and four letter words.)
Frank Sennett from Booklist offers this description of the book:
Apply a sly feminist sensibility to postwar Hollywood noir, and you get a sordid saga in which women normally consigned to one-note victimhood turn out to be alarmingly complicit in their own downfalls . . . It’s Hollywood as meat grinder for Midwesterners too eager to swap snow for stardust
That last sentence really sums the work up. The female characters came to Hollywood determined to break out of the dullness of their hometowns and are willing to take quite a few risks to do it. Not surprisingly, this rarely ends well.
Hop in many ways did the same thing, except his talent, words, and his gender put him in an a different position. But in many ways it involves the same kind of potentially soul killing compromises. Like most of us, Hop would like to believe he hasn’t sold his soul completely but the events of the story call that belief into question. The novel vividly relates his struggle to come to terms with the choices he has made.
I certainly found the book to be entertaining and was amazed at how Abbott was able to capture/create the dark and seamy side of post-war Hollywood. She keeps the the tension building and the reader guessing until the surprising ending (two endings really, one for Spangler and one for Hop).
If there was an aspect I didnâ€™t enjoy it was the fevered, almost schizophrenic nature of the Hop character. One of the things I have enjoyed about the hardboiled fiction I have read (see here and here for examples) is its lean almost uncluttered style. Abbott seems to have upped the melodrama a bit. It is a fine line I know, after all for much of the story Hop is drunk or hasn’t had any sleep for days or both. But at times the style was little over-the-top.
So if you like your stories dark and gritty with an edge of sexual tension and a twist of post-war Hollywood be sure to check out Megan Abbott.