In at #19 is Megan Abbott’s gripping neo-noir thriller The Song is You (2007). I first encountered Abbott whilst doing research for my PhD, after I stumbled across her excellent monograph The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hard-boiled fiction and Film Noir. Abbott’s passion for crime fiction is certainly stylistically palpable in her work. Heavily influenced by writers such as James M. Cain, Ellroy and Jim Thompson, Abbot manages to forge a prose style that is unique and engaging with a real attention to period detail. Although slightly more lucid than Ellroy, there is a comparable intensity to Abbott’s writing that makes it equally hypnotic.
Similarly to James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987), Abbott’s The Song is You centres on the real life disappearance of a ‘bit-part’ Hollywood actress. In this case it is twenty-six year old Jane Spangler, a mother of one who vanished in 1949 under suspicious circumstances. As with much neo-nor fiction, Abbott depicts the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood celebrity, a ruthless, vacuous world saturated by sex, scandal and violence. Enter Gil ‘Hop’ Hopkins, a smooth talking ex-reporter turned Hollywood ‘fixer’ who is paid to disguise/ bury certain aspects of celebrities private lives in order to maintain their public image. Hop’s and Spangler’s worlds collide the night before her disappearance, when the slick ‘fixer’ parties with the Spangler and one of her friends in an L.A. bar. Hop ultimately leaves Jean with a couple of celebrities rumoured to have a predatory and violent reputation, after which she is never seen again.
Two years later, Hop is still consumed by Spangler’s disappearance and ravaged by guilt for his complicity in covering up the two actors potential involvement. Although he initially justifies his actions as being part of the job, Hop eventually undertakes his own unsanctioned investigation into the disappearance in an attempt to atone for his past transgressions.
The Song is You is an excellent novel. Abbott’s prose is sharp, suspenseful and packed full of brilliant dialogue. Abbott’s work also brilliantly rewrites the codes and conventions of previous noir fiction, as she places a greater emphasis on female perspectives and female agency. Although Hop is very much built in the tradition of ‘hardboiled’ masculine heroes, Abbott’s female characters exhibit a profound understanding of the patriarchal demands of their society (be that sexual or marital) and are celebrated for their ability to circumvent, manipulate and perform these expectations. All of Abbott’s characters have a depth and complexity and the denouement of the novel deliberately subverts the typical expectations of these kinds of narratives.
I really can’t speak highly enough of Abbott’s writing, so do check her out! Unfortunately, some of Abbott’s early novels are no longer in print so it might be hard to get hold of them brand new. You can still pick up The Song is You second hand pretty easily though. Also check out Die a Little (2005), Queenpin (2007) and Bury Me Deep (2009).