Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Megan Abbott and Henry James

Long long overdue, I know, for any fan of crime fiction, but I finally have gotten around to reading Megan Abbott. I decided to start at the beginning, with her first book, DIE A LITTLE, from 2005.  As most readers of contemporary noir probably know, it's set in 1950's era Los Angeles and its world is the outer fringes of Hollywood. Of course it's superbly written and thoroughly researched - no surprise there.  Period detail is captured beautifully.  But what struck me most about the book is how to a remarkable extent Megan Abbott captures the workings of a mind that doesn't know itself.  Lora, the main character, is quite repressed.  She's someone cut-off from the core of herself and doesn't want to acknowledge what that core might be, what darkness may lurk there.   

What is Lora capable of?  She doesn't want to know. The reader certainly doesn't know, at least at first, and the book needs time to reveal her, peel away at her.  Layer by layer, the onion is unpeeled.  That Lora herself is telling the story, showing you things about her mind and personality that she herself doesn't realize, is one of the things that makes this  book fascinating. It's all in the telling. This is not a noir with lots of action and surface violence.  The plot is actually slow to boil.  A character's glance at someone else at a party, a particular gesture, what's left unsaid, are the keys here. When you talk about noir like this, it's common to say it has echoes of Cain, Chandler, James Ellroy (the usual suspects) - and this does - but along with these noir masters, this book has a quality very unlike most noir, something elusive and ambiguous.  It has a quality that reminded me of an entirely different writer, someone with no connection to noir at all.

Indeed, Lora, with all her repression and her way of elucidating around a topic without stating outright what she means, reminded me of nothing so much as a Henry James character.  Strange, but true. DIE A LITTLE inhabits a world entirely different than James' typically rarified sphere and has nothing to do with ghosts or children, but Lora's level of repression and self-obliviousness, her refusal to look at herself, reminded me of the governess narrator in THE TURN OF THE SCREW.  Repressed rage simmers.  The desire to protect has rarely seemed so creepy and downright dangerous.  And as in so many Henry James tales, so much of DIE A LITTLE'S drama occurs in the narrator's mind, just under the visible surface of life.   It's up to the reader to see what the narrator can't see or refuses to see, and it's because of Megan Abbot's supple technique that the reader can see, clearly, what the very person telling the story doesn't.  Remarkable.

This has to be the first time I was reading a crime novel where at one and the same time I thought about James M. Cain and Henry James.  Two different ways of writing, two different ways of looking at the world and the way people interact with the world, that you wouldn't think could be fused so smoothly.  But Megan Abbott fuses them.  In DIE A LITTLE she writes something you could actually call Jamesian Noir.


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