April 2005

Sarah Vance


Die a Little by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott's Die A Little is a neo-noir set in 1950s Los Angeles. Written in the style of the hard-boiled detective genre, Abbott gives her noir a big shot of estrogen. The plot isn’t as complicated as any of James Ellroy’s fiction, but Die A Little still reads a little like an L.A. Confidential told from a distinctly feminine point-of-view. But in Abbott’s noir not all sexually active women are femme fatales, and the innocent aren’t always all that innocent after all.

The story unfolds in first person narrative through the unflinching voice of Lora King, a spinster schoolmarm still in her twenties, who's been playing housekeeper for her cop brother, Bill, since they were orphaned as teenagers. The perfect synchronicity of their suburban existence is suddenly changed when he stops to help a damsel in distress by the side of the road. Soon Bill is missing dinner as he slips away to meet his “new friend” for coffee and chop suey suppers. It isn’t long before Bill marries the mysterious “Alice Steele,” a glamorous wardrobe mistress at a Hollywood movie studio. Following their whirlwind romance, Alice and Bill set up housekeeping in a brand-new house in South Pasadena, and Lora is forced to get a one-bedroom apartment in the valley by herself.

Alice is the most alluring and mysterious woman Lora has ever met, but she finds it odd that Alice has no past at all. While the other women married to the guys in Bill’s office have relatives in Orange County, Dallas or Minneapolis, Alice doesn’t have any family and doesn’t claim to be from anywhere in particular. One night when she is unable to sleep, Lora glimpses Alice in harsh light without any make-up and she sees, “the eyes of a death mask, rotting behind the gleaming façade.”

When Alice’s old friend, Lois Slattery starts hanging around, Lora that whatever Alice is hiding in her past must be sordid. Lois flaunts the trashy style that Alice has taken great pains to hide. Lora is temporarily distracted when Alice introduces her to Mike Standish, a sexy studio publicist. Mike’s job is to clean up the messes other people make, and he’s good at it, but he’s also fast and slick and doesn’t get along with Bill. When Lois turns up dead, Lora’s natural curiosity leads her to investigate. And soon she’s in over her head, uncovering a conspiracy of sex, drugs, and murder.

Abbott takes her readers on a trip back in time, paying attention to the smallest details that brings Los Angeles of 1950s to life. And it’s not just the historical accuracy of the locations where the story is set. It’s that Alice serves hot artichoke hors d’oeurves and tuna squares on a Cornwall Thermo tray and has a brand new Pyrex hostess set for her fruit cocktail gelatin ring.

Abbott’s writing style is fluid and clear. The story is told in flashback and moves smoothly. While there aren’t any shocking plot twists or a dramatic climax, Die A Little is still a very satisfying read. Abbott is a professor of film at New York University, and she knows how to manipulate the traditional sex role stereotypes of the hard-boiled genre to give Die A Little a bit of a feminist twist. At the same time, the characters all behave realistically to the period in which the story is set.

Die a Little By Megan Abbott
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743261704
241 pages