I have never read Megan Abbott before, but the critical acclaim for her new novel drove me back into the 746 to pick up one of her earlier works, her third novel The Song is You.
This is a brilliant slice of neo-noir crime fiction, taking a real life story as inspiration to turn the conventions of the genre into something fresh, stylish and utterly convincing.
In October 1949, dancer and bit-part actress Jean Spangler went missing after a shoot on a Los Angeles movie lot. She was never found, but her purse was – abandoned in a Los Angeles park containing part of a cryptic note, which read:
Kirk, Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away,
It was assumed that the ‘Kirk’ in the note referred to Kirk Douglas (with whom it was rumoured Spangler was having a relationship) and further assumed that she must have been pregnant and attempting to procure an abortion from ‘Dr. Scott’. These assumptions took such a hold that Douglas was forced to make a statement distancing himself from Spangler’s disappearance. Spangler was never found and eventually public interest and the trail to find her went cold.
In Abbott’s retelling, the fictional Gil ‘Hop’ Hopkins is the man who made sure that trail went cold. Hop is a charmer, a smooth-talker who has worked his way into a low-level gig managing the publicity for a big name studio. It is 1951 and he is part publicist, part fixer. It is his job to spin the bad news on the studio talent and if he cannot spin it, to bury it. When B-list actresses like Barbara Payton keep getting into trouble, Hop is the guy who smooths the story over or keeps it out of the press. And there is no shortage of work for Hop’s particular set of skills.
He’d seen his fair share of lunatics in his years in Hollywood: hysterical actresses who liked to smash windows with their bare hands, gloomy-faced actors who played with loaded pistols at parties and then retired to darkened rooms for days or weeks at a time. Glamour girls who pulled their dresses over their heads in public. The elegant leading man who stole teacups from restaurants, and another, same sort, who asked his lovers to throw tennis balls between his legs from across the room. Hop was rarely surprised these days.
He is good at his job and enjoys the perks and if it weren’t for his manipulative ex-wife Midge, or her new relationship with his best friend and newspaper editor Jerry, life would be good. However, it turns out that relationship woes are the least of his problems when the Spangler case comes back to haunt him.
Hop was there on the night Jean went missing and he last saw her in the company of two very famous song and dance stars with a reputation for rough play. He doesn’t want to look back on that night because hushing up what happened got him his job, but when another woman who was there that night, the beautiful Iolene, also disappears, then Hop finds himself wading through corruption and lies – some of his own making – to try and bury the truth all over again.
What follows is a fast-paced page-turning romp through the underbelly of Tinseltown, where powerful men employ less powerful men to make sure they get away with anything they want. The women here are disposable, used mainly for their youth and beauty and discarded when the next young, beautiful woman comes along. This is a seedy Los Angeles where everything is for sale and every depravity catered for
Abbott cleverly channels the great noir writers without becoming a pale imitation. She perfectly captures the setting and language of the genre but subverts the macho conventions to create a world focused more on the women than on the men who use them.
There is a very filmic feel to the writing, only instead of creating the sheen of this glamourous world, she peels it back to expose the dark underbelly of this shadowy industry. There is a seediness to the writing, a pungent sense of danger and trouble as Abbott eschews the movie sets and Hollywood parties for seedy strip bars and low-rent clubs.
Using Hop to tell the story is a perfect touch because we are unable to trust him. Hop is a climber and one who knows where the bodies are buried. He is manipulative, shallow and self-absorbed.
As he gets drawn deeper into what happened to Jean Spangler, will he continue to hide the truth or will he expose the killer and by doing so, wreck his own career? This ambiguity is what makes The Song Is You so readable, and the ending, in which Abbott brings a satisfying closure to the Spangler case, both unsettles and re-establishes the status quo in Hollywood.
The Song Is You is a hard-hitting yet beguiling mystery, sprinkled with that tabloid Hollywood sheen. The prose is punchy and authentic and the dialogue movie-worthy. Abbott carefully mixes her fictional characters with real-life people, bringing a gritty authenticity to her portrayal of Los Angeles as the town of movies, parties and stars hiding an underbelly of organised crime, sexual misconduct and back street abortions.
Comparisons to The Black Dahlia are to be expected, but Abbott has her own voice and this is a highly entertaining and convincing slice of Hollywood noir that transcends its roots.
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