I am a noir novice. To date, I have read only two books that could be considered noir crime fiction (think Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Elmore Leonard, James Ellroy), Bury Me Deep and Abbott’s other book, Queenpin. If you’re not familiar with the genre either, here’s a fine definition I pulled from Wikipedia, attributed to one George Tuttle:
In this sub-genre, the protagonist is usually not a detective, but instead either a victim, a suspect, or a perpetrator. He is someone tied directly to the crime, not an outsider called to solve or fix the situation. Other common characteristics…are the emphasis on sexual relationships and the use of sex to advance the plot and the self-destructive qualities of the lead characters. This type of fiction also has the lean, direct writing style and the gritty realism commonly associated with hardboiled fiction.
Bury Me Deep is based on the true story of Winnie Ruth Judd, the “Trunk Murderess,” who moved with her husband to Phoenix in 1930 to help relieve her consumption (tuberculosis). Her husband, a doctor unable to find work in Phoenix, went to Los Angeles to find employment, and eventually traveled to Mexico. In his absence, Judd developed a friendship with two women, Agnes “Anne” Le Roi and Hedvig “Sammy” Samuelson, who were her neighbors. She also became involved with a man, a lumber-yard owner named J.J. “Happy Jack” Halloran, who, although married himself, ran in fast circles, providing booze and drugs for wild parties the women would host. Tension developed between the three women over time, and at some point, Judd shot and killed the two women in what she claimed was self-defense. With the help of Happy Jack and his associate(s), she packed the two bodies (one dismembered) into two trunks and took them on a train to Los Angeles, where a porter was overcome by the smell of the trunks. Judd was asked to open the trunks, and she explained she had to get the key from her husband and disappeared. She was arrested four days later in Los Angeles and escorted back to Phoenix, where she stood trial and was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of one of the women. Eventually the sentence was overturned, and she was placed in a state mental institution, from which she escaped seven times. She died in 1998, at the age of 93.
It’s a difficult venture to take a true story and turn it into fiction, but Megan Abbott manages it with great aplomb. Her heroine, Marion Seeley, has come to Phoenix with her husband for her consumption, but also because Dr. Seeley (like Dr. Judd) had lost his license to practice medicine in several states, due to a severe morphine addiction. He takes a job treating miners in Mexico, leaving Marion alone in Phoenix in a boarding house, working as a secretary in a medical clinic. At the clinic, Marion meets a nurse, Louise Mercer, who befriends her and introduces her to Virginia “Ginny” Hoyt. The girls, as Marion refers to them throughout the book, bring Marion into their world of illicit parties with powerful men. It is at one of these parties that Marion Seeley meets Joe Lanigan, for whom she has a violent attraction that will be her eventual undoing.
Abbott remains faithful to the facts of the story, such as they are, up to the point of the murder. Abbott explains in an author’s note that follows the text:
…I had to make some choices in terms of how much I should deviate from history, or in this case, history, lore and legend and the many spaces in between. After all, the “true story” of what happened between Winnie Ruth Judd, Anne LeRoi, Sammy Samuelson, and Jack Halloran on that long-ago October night remains a mystery…With no definitive answers, I invented my own. I began with the basic foundation of fact and rumor, and navigated an imaginary path forged by the elements of the story that so captivated me, most especially the powder keg at the center of the case: the various attachments, triangles and jealousies between the three women and the one man, all of whom depended, in ways small and large, emotional and economic, on one another.
Ultimately, Marion Seeley’s fate differs greatly from that of Winnie Ruth Judd. That is the great redemptive power of fiction, although the ending of Bury Me Deep is still tragic in its own way. But even as Abbott makes the story her own, it is never unbelievable, and we are never far from an emotional center that opens us up to all of the intense vulnerability of a woman in Marion’s position. She is a preacher’s daughter from the Midwest who married a man, a doctor, three decades her senior. She believed she had chosen a solid husband, a man respected by the community, and instead found she had married a respectable man who was also a hard-core drug addict. With the country in the midst of the Depression, she followed him from state to state as her own health failed, slowly realizing that her dream of a family, of being part of a community, would most likely never materialize.
This might be noir crime fiction, but it speaks of a real truth regarding the hardship so many women faced, being so dependent on men for their livelihood, for their place in society, for their very survival. Marion is drawn to Louise in particular for her strength, but Louise is as vulnerable as Marion in her own ways. Abbott is even-handed in her treatment of all three women, which makes the tale all the more tragic. She also gets the period details right, from something as broad as showing us the contradictions in 1930s America–the great, repressed land of the “free”–to the minute: the clothing, the terminology, the slang.
While fiction hardly lacks for strong female protagonists, one of the things I like about Abbott’s books is that her women are so very pragmatic. These aren’t intellectual heroines, plucky young women defying convention by sneaking into the boys’ club or determining not to marry and instead pursue a life of the mind. In Queenpin the protagonist actively chooses a life of crime, following a strong female mentor. In Bury Me Deep, Marion Seeley finds herself thrust outside the boundaries of convention not by choice but out of necessity. Both are undone by great passion, or maybe the better term is a great weakness. If fiction is to show us what a person will do, what she is capable of in the grimmest of circumstances, then Abbott is one fine fiction writer. And while she actively writes and is happily marketed as a writer of noir (much like Sarah Waters is perfectly happy with being a writer of GLBT lit), I cannot help but worry that the label will keep a wider audience from her work, an audience she much deserves.
Thrill parties every night over on Hussel Street. That tiny house, why, it’s 600 square feet of percolating, Wurlitzerizing sin.
It was Friday, her fifth day at the clinic, and she had seen Nurse Louise stalking the halls more than once, stalking them, a lioness. A long-limbed girl with a thick brush of dark red hair crowning a pale, pie face, painted on brows thin as kidsilk and a tilting Scotch nose. When she walked, her hips slung and her chest bobbed up round apples and the men on the ward took notice–my, how could they not? She was not beautiful, but she had a bristling, crackling energy about her and it was like she was always winking at you and nodding her head as if saying, always, even when stacking X-rays, C’mon, sweet face, c’mon.
Crimson Cavalcade. Just the name painted such plush-throated images in Marion’s head. She had never known women who had been to such places. She had certainly never known women who worked in them. Back home, when her brother had his troubles, he’d taken to killing his sad evenings in a little place called the Silver Tug Club…Dr. Seeley explained to her that such places were really just gentlemen’s clubs but that gentlemen, not like her father but other types, liked to sit back after a long workday and have a post-prandial beverage with other gentlemen and smoke a cigar and talk over current events, and there was nothing really wrong with that, was there, and shouldn’t she know her brother’s had times enough, what with losing his bank job in ’27 and losing his wife to a railroad man in ’28?
And then Joe Lanigan, he turned to her. He turned to her and focused on her and she felt as small as a baby doll rocking in the corner. She thought if she opened her mouth baby goos would come out. So she didn’t say anything. And he folded his arms and looked at her and nodded and she knew he knew everything. About the starch in her underthings, the Isabey powder she passed up and down each leg after bathing and about the baby doll rocking in the corner. He knew it all.
The trunks, it was true, she could hear them creaking in the hot room, the heat expanding the canvas and pine, stretching the slats. She put her shaking hands on them. That was when the smell first came to her, began to seep into the space. She could feel it climbing up her body, skimming under her clothes, under her fingernails and into her skin. It made her think of the clammy bottom of things, dank and lost and dirt-mouthed. She felt something damp on her ankle. Bending down, she saw the puckering side of one trunk, wet to the touch.
…[He] was singing to a girl, she looked like a girl, with her arms wrapped tight around herself, a pitch of blood on her shirtfront and it was the lungs. Was anyone left in this whole lonely world with lungs not patched together as if from tattered muslin and cobwebs? They all came to the desert, like she had, they blew in from all corners, they came to the desert to build themselves anew. Isn’t that what she had done, wasn’t she anew?