Sunday, January 21, 2018

Megan Abbott and Gil Brewer Double-Shot

Really, if they're going to wear those darted sweaters tucked tight in those long fitted skirts cradling heart-shaped asses, skirts so tight they swiveled when they walked in them, clack-clack-clacking away down the hall, full aware - with full intention - that he was watching, even as his face betrayed nothing, not a rough twitch or a faint hint of saliva on his decidedly not-trembling lip. It wasn't he who was unusual, so lust-filled or insatiable. It was they who packaged themselves up so pertly for utmost oomph, for him alone, really, even if they hadn't met him yet when they slid on their treacherous gossamer stockings that morning, even if they hadn't known why they straightened the seams on their blouses so they'd hang in perfectly sharp arrows down their waiting, waiting breasts. - Megan Abbott, from The Song is You

Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, cover design by Ellen R Sasahara

Man, if that doesn't pull you in, you need to check your pulse to see if you're still alive! Passages like this one from The Song is You are why Megan Abbott is one of my favorite writers. She can nail the menace and sex that noir is built on, and transcend it to another level. It's not a surprise that her popularity has increased with each new novel. For every half-baked bestseller touted by critics, there are novels by writers like Megan Abbott who've already done it and done it better.

The Song is You is her 2nd published novel, from 2007, and it uses a real-life Hollywood mystery for its inspiration. In 1949, starlet Jean Spangler left her home to do a "night shoot" for a film she was supposedly working in. She never came home, and was never seen again. A few days later her purse was found in Griffith Park, with an unfinished handwritten note inside it. The note was addressed to a Kirk and referred to a Dr Scott. That was the last clue to a mystery that has never been solved. Megan Abbott uses this setup to recreate a dark novel of secrets about what might have happened to Jean Spangler. It's similar to James Ellroy's novel The Black Dahlia, in that it blends real life people with fiction and recreates a time and place built on dreams and fantasy. I mean who can resist a Hollywood mystery? Abbott's attention to detail and character drives this novel. If you're a fan of noir and unsolved mysteries, this novel will be right up your dark alley. Abbott returned to another true-crime case a few years later with Bury Me Deep about the Winnie Ruth Judd murders in 1930's Phoenix. The noir genre is so heavily weighed down with scads of male writers and tropes that have become so standard as to be expected. Diving into the dark heart of noir from the woman's perspective is a blast.

Gold Medal Books, 1951

Picture in your mind all the wizened, jittery, pasty-faced, hollow-eyed dope fiends you can conjure up, and add ashes. There you have the little guy. Maybe that doesn't do him justice. He was no dope. It was something else. You might think of leprosy when you saw the way his skin glistened, but you'd know you were wrong. He was drumhead tight, in a wasp-waisted gray gabardine that was neater than any pin, with a maroon tie and a maroon handkerchief cocking a bloody eye out of his breast pocket. He wore an expensive Panama hat that must have been set on his square little head with a carpenter's level. It was the broad-brimmed kind. He gave you the impression that when his suit went to the cleaners, he stayed in it, with through the process, pressing and all, and was carefully hung in antiseptic shade. - Gil Brewer, from So Rich, So Dead

The only thing missing from that description are the pink shoelaces! Gil Brewer is one of my all-time favorite noir writers from the 50's and 60's. He's not as polished as writers like John D MacDonald, but his prose has a fever and a drive that make his books irresistible to me. Unfortunately, So Rich, So Dead, from 1951, isn't one of the better examples of why I like his work so much. This was his 2nd novel with Gold Medal, after Satan is a Woman and before his highly successful 13 French Street. All three of these novels were published in 1951, which gives you an indication of his writing method. That was, churn them out and cash the checks. So Rich, So Dead has elements of the best of his novels, found in books like The Vengeful Virgin and The Red Scarf, but falls short, with it's Chinese Buffet of a plot that's almost zany instead of suspenseful.

Briefly, Bill Maddern returns from Charleston, SC to St. Petersburg, FL upon receiving a desperate telegram from his brother Danny Maddern. The brothers had set up a detective agency in St. Pete, and had seen a moderate level of success before, for reasons never really clear, Bill took off for Charleston. In his absence, Danny is hired to investigate a missing person believed to have been involved in a payroll robbery that netted the criminals $500,000. Bill returns to FL to discover his brother's murdered body, along with a note (hidden in a spittoon!) informing Bill that Danny had found the stolen loot and the body of one of the criminals involved. This kicks off a plot that is all over the map in the span of 24 hours, filled with 3 femme fatales, razor wielding goons, shotguns, car chases, angry cops, sex and a wild chase through a lady's department store sale, of all things. It's a fun novel, but not one that I would introduce to first-time readers of Gil Brewer. I'm glad to see that Brewer's novels and stories have seen a renewed interest though.

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