November 22, 2013 § 1 Comment
When Marion Seeley’s disgraced husband leaves for a position abroad, she is unbearably lonely. Although he left her with a modest amount of money, accommodation and some new clothes, Dr Seeley was the only person she ever spent time with. Marion, who works as a medical administrative assistant, knows that if she doesn’t move beyond her comfort zone, she will be condemned to a life of loneliness. When Nurse Louise Mercer invites her for a girls’ night, Marion boldly accepts – even knowing Louise’s reputation as a relentless party animal. Louise and her roommate Ginny welcome Marion to their circle with open arms and suddenly, Marion has a family. Ginny has tuberculosis, but Louise is committed to providing her with the medication and care that she needs. Marion is moved by the girls’ devotion to one another, especially throughout the wild parties and impromptu gatherings that seem to be the norm at their house.
‘I can’t know what you mean, Louise. I can’t. Elsie’s an everyday girl like we are, I am, I don’t know what you are, I don’t know it now,” Marion said, feeling suddenly dizzy, feeling suddenly the prickly junipers bursting before her eyes, making her head quaky. Who were these women? she wondered. Who were they and what was she?
Louise introduces Marion to Gent Joe Lannigan, their friend and benefactor. Gent Joe runs a chain of pharmacies, and his generosity has saved Ginny’s life on more than one occasion. Marion they are entangled in a fiery affair.
Only peripherally aware of Louise and Ginny’s resentment of her closeness with Joe, Marion is stunned when Louise confronts her. When Ginny pulls a pearl-handled pistol from her lingerie drawer, Marion has no choice but to shoot the girls who took her in so willingly.
Marion, there are things you are sure you’d never do, Louise had said to her once. Until you have.
What follows is so unexpected that I hesitate to describe it to you for fear that it would detract from the experience of reading the novel first-hand. The remainder of the book is concerned with the disposal of bodies, the covering up of two murders, the laying of blame and the path to redemption.
In BURY ME DEEP, as in DIE A LITTLE, Abbott brings the femme fatale to life. While DIE A LITTLE was concerned with which of the central women was the more powerful, BURY ME DEEP explores the concept in a little more depth. Initially, Marion is the shrinking violet to Louise and Ginny’s party-girl personas, but as the plot jack-knifes midway through the book, her psyche begins to unravel. Propped up by an unexpected source of support, Marion reconstructs herself. After the trauma of Louise and Ginny’s death and the complications of her affair with Gent Joe, there’s no way that she could remain the wallflower she was when her husband first left.
As a protagonist, I found Marion fascinating. She is aware of the fact that she is being corrupted from the inside out, but is also powerless to stop the process. Her self-awareness is the very same quality that allows her to build herself back up again and to enact elegant revenge against the person who most deserves it.
Marion also comes to appreciate and understand those who wronged her. I think it would undermine her strength to say that she simply forgives them for the danger they put her in – rather, she develops a kind of profound empathy for the people who have harmed her. One might even say she loves them.
“I look at you, Marion,” he said, “and all I see is death. I see dead girls and sorrow. It is not fair, but there it is. I can’t look at you without thinking of that night. Your beauty is blinding but behind it I see death.”
While DIE A LITTLE transported the reader to the merry indulgence of the fifties, BURY ME DEEP makes plain the stark desperation of the thirties. Reading this book in an era of relative luxury made me realise just how much of an impact the Depression would have had on the everyday life of a woman my age in the thirties.
When Marion buys herself in a tiny bar of nougat and realises that this indulgence will cost her hot meals and shampoo for a week, I think I nearly had a heart attack. I am constantly impulse-purchasing, and I buy four to five books per week. How would I have survived the Depression if a single chocolate could have destroyed my self-sufficiency for an entire week (Answer: I wouldn’t have)?
BURY ME DEEP is inspired by the case of “The Trunk Murderess”. In October of 1931, the bodies of a girl and her roommate were discovered in a pair of trunks at a train station in LA. When a young doctor’s wife comes forward and turns herself in, she is saved in much the same way that Marion is. Abbott admits to having been forced to fictionalise those aspects of the story that historical evidence neglects, but by and large, BURY ME DEEP strongly resembles the reality of the tabloid sensation that was The Trunk Murderess’ crime. The fact that this book is based on the experiences of a real-life woman makes it a much more sobering tale than DIE A LITTLE. The scene at the train station, where the contents of the infamous trunks is called into question, is actually quite sickening when you remember that there were once two bodies, two wild party girls brought to a horrific end, and transported in much the same way.
BURY ME DEEP is a much more sophisticated novel than DIE A LITTLE. This is to be expected, given that DIE A LITTLE was Abbott’s first, but the evolution of Abbott’s ability as a writer is enormously apparent. Once is a fluke. Twice is a coincidence, three times is confirmation. If there was any chance that Megan Abbott’s DIE A LITTLE was a fluke, DARE ME allayed those doubts. And now, with BURY ME DEEP, I can confirm: Megan Abbott is one hell of a writer.
October 27, 2013 § 2 Comments
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.