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New queen of noir

Local writer hits Hollywood paydirt and turns on James Ellroy

Voici la femme: Novelist Megan Abbott plays her part.
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Published 9/3/2008

She isn't the kind of woman who'd pack a pistol or stash a dead body in the trunk of a car. In fact, she looks adorable, friendly and even somewhat diminutive on the cover of the winter issue of Crimespree Magazine. But make no mistake, Megan Abbott is a noir fiction writer who isn't afraid to grab a traditional femme fatale character by the mink stole and throw her right into the center of the action.

Because of her originality, skill and the sheer impact she's made as a relative newcomer, fellow crime novelist Ken Bruen has called 37-year-old Abbott the "new queen of noir." Best-selling author James Ellroy says she's "poised to ascend to the top rung of crime writing and quite possibly something beyond." And Abbott is living up to the praise.

Many of her dark, hard-boiled tales have appeared in magazines and anthologies, and she edited the recent collection, A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir. Since 2006, she's published three novels with Simon & Schuster. A fourth, Bury Me Deep, is scheduled for publication in July 2009. Her very first novel, Die a Little, is about to be reborn as a major motion picture starring a well-known young actress.

In her newest novel, the 2008 Edgar Award winner, Queenpin, Abbott introduces a sexy, stiletto-heeled mobster named Gloria Denton. The character proves to be fierce, dangerous and capable of out-conniving any male anti-hero as she navigates a world of racetracks, one-night stands, shady casinos and jewel heists. And like tough movie divas, she does it all without breaking a nail or popping a button on her designer silk suit.

The book follows the coming-of-age of Denton's nameless protégée, a younger woman who gets her start as a bookkeeper at a notorious nightclub. The two ladies are bound by an addiction to danger and an impeccable fashion sense, which is a departure from the macho detectives found in paperbacks by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in the 1920s and the 1930s. Those are the books that inspire most current noir crime writers. And they inspire Abbott too.

But she's also influenced by film noir, based on those books. Growing up in Grosse Pointe with Mom and Dad, both of them professors and authors, Abbott spent her weekend mornings watching old movies like Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. When she was writing Queenpin, she "cast" actors from that period. She imagined Denton played by Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford.

"Whereas other kids would watch Disney or Spielberg," mom Patricia recalls,"Megan would always choose Jean Harlow, Jeanne Crain or Barbara Stanwyck movies. Her favorites, even at six or seven, were movies like Imitation of Life, Red Dust, Leave Her to Heaven, A Letter to Three Wives. She liked movies with strong, glamorous women even when they were ultimately undone by the men they chose." Mom also remembers Megan telling her grandma that she hoped to be a writer soon if someone would just get her a typewriter.

"I think for me, when I was a kid," Megan explains, "watching those black-and-white movies on TV ... gave me a really warped sense of what the world was like," Abbott says in a recent phone interview from her home in Queens, New York City, where she lives with her husband, author Joshua Gaylord, whose own novel Hummingbirds will be published by Harper Collins in fall of 2009. "It was this sort of glamorous, dark, treacherous world that seemed very exotic and sophisticated. And, somehow, in writing I'm trying to walk into that world or sort of write my way into it. And that's probably my primary inspiration."

And maybe that's why her stories have a cinematic quality. They give the reader a real visual sense of what's going on. Whether it's a steamy love scene or a blood-splattering murder, there are dimensions to enter and get lost in. Take this excerpt from Queenpin, for example, in which the main character — the unnamed protégé — allows Denton to help her slip into an evening gown:

"I slid out of my sheath dress and felt her hand touch my stiff-raw back as I stepped into the gown. The neckline hung low, weighted down with heavy beading like scales against my chest. We walked over to the long mirror in the corner of the room. She stood behind me, six inches taller, that crown of titian hair and those eyes thin as dark threads punched in her face ... She laced her silver gloves across my collar bones, eyes trained on our reflection in the mirror. It was as if she was saying to herself, This was me once."

It isn't only high fashion, female beauty and lush vintage decor that create texture and depth; it's the complexity of the characters. Denton is a treacherous woman, but she wears her "pearls of wisdom" as well as her evening gowns. Having taken a young woman under her wing, she tells her, "You have to decide who you are, little girl. ... Once you know that, everyone else will too." The expression of humanity against all the scheming and chicanery makes Denton seem more real, more vivid.

"I think because of the obsession I have with film, I do tend to think more visually," she says. "And when I'm writing I'm trying to paint the whole scene and write the scene like you'd shoot a movie. Not all of my influences are old movies. I'm also influenced by Goodfellas or The Grifters or more recent movies. I'm trying to picture the way it's shot."

It looks like Abbott will, at last, see one of her own stories on the silver screen. Die a Little was published by Simon & Schuster in 2006 and it's already slated to be made into a movie by United Artists, retaining the book's title. Jessica Biel — who according to a November 2007 LA Times article, fell in love with the book and paid for the option herself — is to play the lead. Die a Little is a thriller about a schoolteacher and her police detective brother who fall into harm's way after meeting a mysterious woman. It's now in production with no release date.

Beside all the dreamy glitz and Hollywood obsession, there's also a scholarly side to Abbott, reflected in her nonfiction book exploring the "tough guy," The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir published in 2003. But it comes as no surprise. After all, she's the daughter of two very accomplished parents, the sister of a metro Detroit prosectutor and a well-respected expert on her genre.

Abbott graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English literature. Soon after, she moved to New York and received her Ph.D. in English and American literature at New York University. Currently she works as a grant writer for Union Settlement, a social service agency in East Harlem. Her mother is a short story writer who teaches at Wayne State University, and her father, Dr. Philip Abbott, is a distinguished professor of political science there. He's written more than a dozen books on political theory and the presidency, most recently, The Challenge of the American Presidency, published in 2004.

Abbott returns to metro Detroit to share her expertise at the Kerrytown BookFest in Ann Arbor. She'll be a panelist for a discussion on "Fresh Faces in Historical Crime Fiction." The festival vice president and co-owner of Aunt Agatha's Book Store in Ann Arbor, Robin Agnew, says she's thrilled to have Abbott on the panel. "It's my dream panel," Agnew says. "She was the first one I asked, and I built the panel around her."

Abbott appears as a panelist at 4 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 7, as part of the 6th Annual Kerrytown BookFest in the Farmers' Market in the historic Kerrytown district, Ann Arbor. The festival runs 11 am-5 pm. For more information, visit kerrytownbookfest.org or meganabbott.com.

Norene Cashen is a poet whose recent publication is The Reverse Is Also True (Doorjamb Press). Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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