Reader’s Journal: Queenpin

I love Las Vegas. I love the juxtaposition of gilt and grit, what the neon lights both hide an expose. I love the movie Goodfellas (not kidding—I have seen it over 30 times), the way it shows the highlife and the dirty underbelly of the mob. I like The Rolling Stones, with their bluesy snarl, better than the beloved pop-rock Beatles. In other words, I like things that are a little bit dirty, a little bit dark.

So how come I never got into noir crime fiction? The main reason, I guess, is that I was never really into “regular” crime fiction. It’s only been in the last year or so that I started reading crime or mystery novels (I’m still a bit squishy on the genres, to tell the truth). I always read literary fiction or classics, but I started to get a bit bored. So where to turn? I was unsure. When I thought of mystery or crime novels, I thought of the rack of paperbacks at the Kroger down the street. My mother loaned me a few of her series books—Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich—and I read the first few in each series. They were okay, I thought, but formulaic. One day I was at the bookstore, and for the heck of it, I decided to walk through the mystery section and see what else it had to offer, and what do you know: there were some interesting-looking covers, in hardback and trade paper, books that weren’t James Patterson or Patricia Cornwell, books that looked like something I would actually read. (Yes, my head really was that far up my butt. I had no clue.)

For my venture into “regular” crime fiction, I picked Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know and Tana French’s In the Woods. I liked the Lippman, but I loved the French, and I realized: I wanted more. Book blogs are wonderful because there’s every kind of blog for every kind of reader. I started trolling for things I usually wouldn’t read. My TBR list expanded exponentially. I have more books on that list than I will ever get through, and at least half of them are mystery and suspense novels that I never would have thought to read a couple of years ago.

While I have a copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (Vintage Crime) resting atop an unread pile of books right here in my own house, my first foray into noir crime fiction is actually Megan Abbott’s Queenpin. There was a bit of serendipity involved: I was reading Joshua Gaylord’s Hummingbirds (thoughts coming soon on that one), and in the author notes it mentioned he is married to “Edgar-Award winning novelist” Megan Abbott. I thought her name sounded familiar, so I looked it up. As it turned out, last year, I had found an article (or maybe a blog post) on women who wrote noir crime fiction, and one of the authors featured was Megan Abbott. I had even added one of her books, The Song Is You, to my wish list.

Upon finding her again, I decided to go ahead and check one of her books out of the library. I chose Queenpin because I liked the opening:

I want the legs.

That was the first thing that came into my head. The legs were the legs of a twenty-year-old Vegas showgirl, a hundred feet long and with just enough curve and give and promise. Sure, there was no hiding the slightly worn hands or the beginning tugs of skin framing the bones in her face. But the legs, they lasted, I tell you. They endured. Two decades her junior, my skinny matchsticks were no competition.

In the casinos, she could pass for thirty. The low lighting, her glossy auburn hair, legs swinging, tapping the bottom rim of the tall bettor stools. At the track, though, she looked her age. Even swathed in oversized sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, bright gloves, she couldn’t outflank the merciless sunshine, the glare off the grandstand. Not that it mattered. She was legend.

I was never sure what she saw in me. You looked like you knew a thing or two, she told me later. But were ready to learn a lot more.

And so begins the tale of our nameless narrator’s apprenticeship under the famous Gloria Denton, queenpin of the underworld. The decade is the 1950s, the town is Anytown, USA. The narrator studies accounting at the Dolores Grey Business School and works nights keeping books at a local joint called Club Tee Hee. Her father, a straight man all the way, works for the vending machine supply company that supplies the joint, and he gets her the gig. After she’s been there a few weeks, the owners ask her to start cooking the books. She’s working one night when in walks the notorious Gloria Denton:

I’d been working the new system four or five days when I first saw her. The place was hissing with stories told behind hands as she walked into the place. About the big gees and button men she’d tossed with back in the day, everyone from Dutch Schultz to Joey Adonis and Lucky himself.

Gloria figures out what’s going on immediately and plucks our girl out of the mess and takes her under her wing. Gloria’s a mystery. She shows our girl the ropes, but never shows her hand. Trouble enters the picture in the form of one Vic Riordan, a two-bit gambling loser who takes our girl for quite the ride (both literally and figuratively). He puts her on the spot, and she has to make the tough decisions, decide who to trust, what road to take. I might not be familiar with noir crime fiction as far as books go, but I’ve seen plenty of movies in this vein. As plot goes, it twists and turns but it’s not a complete shocker. What it is, though, is marvelous fun.

One of the best things about Megan Abbott’s writing is not only that she writes clean prose, but she manages to keep the tough-gal narrator talk going through the whole novel without batting an eye. It’s true to the character and fits the atmosphere of the book perfectly, so it never gets in the way of the narrative. In other words, the book never drops character. Abbott is a very visual writer, so it’s easy to picture every scene. She offers enough details to give an interesting angle, but you can fill in the details. I’ll warn you, though: the violence is rather explicit. There’s not a whole lot of it, but what’s there is as graphic as any film.

With the luxury of time I could have easily read this in one sitting. I found it hard to put down because it was fun, and Abbott keeps the atmosphere alive so well that I found it completely absorbing. I definitely plan to read all of her novels (Die a Little, The Song Is You, Bury Me Deep) in the near future. She has also edited an anthology of female noir writers (A Hell of a Woman: An Anthology of Female Noir) and written a book about masculinity in noir films and fiction (The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir) as well. I spent a fair amount of time reading interviews with Abbott and looking for other books by other female noir writers as well. I added a couple to my TBR, Money Shot (Hard Case Crime) by Christa Faust and Cruel Poetry by Vicki Hendricks. Of course, I also plan to read the guys: Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, James Ellroy, Jim Thompson. What about you? Read any good noir lately?

Noir! Who knew?!

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