Die A Little – Megan Abbott

October 27, 2013 § 2 Comments

The greatest cover art ever. I now have it as a wallpaper on my iPhone.

The greatest cover art ever. I now have it as a wallpaper on my iPhone.

Prior to this weekend, I had never given crime fiction more than a cursory glance. Having grown up with British parents and a gran with a penchant for murder mysteries, I’ve seen more than my fair share of Midsomer Murders (side note – why does anyone even still live in Midsomer, what with all the murders?!). I always considered crime fiction to be the result of a predictive formula: gritty murder + idyllic country town + aging detective + just the right number of red herrings = six part special on the BBC. I’ve read the obligatory Agatha Christie and even dabbled in some forensic pathology with Patricia Cornwell, but I generally thought crime fiction was all pretty much the same.

This weekend, I read a crime novel and loved it. Everything I thought I knew about my genre preferences is crumbling before my eyes. For someone who loves reading as much as me, this is just about the equivalent of an identity crisis…

Megan Abbott’s DIE A LITTLE was glorious. I devoured it in a matter of hours. I’m now left wondering, what else has passed me by in the guise of crime?

Lora is astonished when her brother Bill, an upstanding policeman, falls for Alice Steele and promptly marries her in what can only be described as a whirlwind romance. Bill, who has always been conservative and reliable, is the very opposite of Alice, whose exuberance Lora cannot get used to. For the sake of her beloved brother, Lora extends the hand of friendship to Alice, and finds herself spending a great deal of time with her. When asked about her past, Alice is flippant or determinedly elusive, and Lora begins to suspect that there’s more to her outgoing sister-in-law than meets the eye.
When Lora begins a casual relationship with a show-biz contact of Alice’s, her suspicions begin to grow. People from Alice’s dark past begin to surface, and Lora starts to put two and two together. Fearing for her brother’s safety, she takes it upon herself to uncover the truth about Alice, and to find out exactly what she wants with Bill.

I loved so much about this book. The setting is mesmerising; everything seems so glamorous, so polished, and I can easily imagine how young women like Alice could be swept up in its veneer and wind up being dumped in its underworld. The author manages to bring the fashions of the 1950s to life with what could only be meticulous research, but with such legitimacy that it never feels manufactured. Every aspect of the book is tied in with the world of the 1950s, from social expectations to material culture. The endless descriptions of Alice’s decadent parties were so detailed that I could practically hear Doris Day in the background:

Three hours of cocktails and crowded dancing in Bill and Alice’s living room, their Labour Day party just kicking up at nearly eleven o’clock, a cutthroat game of canasta in the kitchen, an impromptu dance contest on the living room’s wall-to-wall, a gang watching a boxing match on the Philco, a bawdy conversation spilling from the powder room in the hallway.

For the four hours it took me to read DIE A LITTLE, I, like Lora, was entirely in the thrall of 1950s Los Angeles society.

DIE A LITTLE is written in the first person, from Lora’s perspective. I found that I had an odd reaction to the narrator – I did not exactly like her, but I found myself becoming just as obsessed with uncovering the truth about Alice as she did. I was sympathetic to her plight, but also a little bit repulsed by her spitefulness. I believe Lora’s narration warrants reading the novel for a second time; her burgeoning obsession with Alice is born of jealousy, but whether of her closeness with her brother or of the hedonism of Alice’s past, I can’t quite tell.
Lora is considered a “bad girl” by the standards of the fifties. This makes it difficult to empathise with her, because what Lora considers outrageous would not cause me to bat an eyelid. In fact, some of Lora’s lowest moments I would expect to witness over and over again on a standard night out clubbing in Brisbane:

By the evening’s third trip to the bathroom, a face caught in the mirror, a smear of what you were a few hours ago. You totter, you catch a smudgy glimpse, you see an eyelash hanging a bit, lipstick bleeding over the lip line. Heel catches on back hem, hand slips on towel rack, grabbing tightly for shell pink guest towel.

Because of the vastly different social standards of the time, Lora is shocked and intrigued by I would consider the norm in a modern crime novel. I felt out of my depth when she began visiting the haunts of the so-called “B-girls”, because it was so very scandalous for women to be even promiscuous at the time, let alone selling themselves. On the other hand, if I were to pick up a Martina Cole novel, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit bothered by her graphic descriptions of the lives of working girls in the slums of London, because my expectations of modern society are so very different from Lora’s. Through Lora’s narration, I adopted the mentality of the fifties. I was completely transported to another time. If this is noir fiction, I have surely been depriving myself.

In DIE A LITTLE, there are not one, but two femme fatales. The mystery here is not just whodunit, but the slow unravelling of which of the women is the stronger. DIE A LITTLE reads like a Lana Del Ray song sounds –  sultry, self-destructive and addictive. I am tempted to go out and purchase the author’s entire back-catalogue today, I loved it so much. As ever, thank you to Beau from Pulp Fiction who recommended that I start with Megan Abbott. If you’d like a copy, Pulp Fiction Booksellers, give them a call on (07) 3236-2750 , or add them as a friend on Faceboook.

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