Saturday, February 16, 2013

Megan Abbott, Heir to James Ellroy

The Song Is You and Bury Me Deep deserve a look

Ahhh...the Serie Noir
Megan Abbott
     Megan Abbott has written a number of novels, but The Song Is You and Bury Me Deep, based on actual cases, are significant examples of the neo-noir subgenre, i.e. works from the 1980s and after that refer to the noir literature and films from the 1930 – 1955 era.  Dashiell Hammett invented the hard-boiled private eye thriller, as an American counterpart to the British cozy amateur/private detective puzzle mystery that Agatha Christie had perfected.  Raymond Chandler took the genre to the West Coast, where he refined it into something lyrical with an outwardly tough, but idealistically motivated, hero searching through the demi-monde before understanding the depth of corruption the rich
and powerful exercise.  John Huston, Howard Hawks and various less significant directors turned these books and others into starkly lit, popular movies that the French went nuts over critically because of the Existential subtext, terming the books ‘Serie Noir’ and the movies ‘Film Noir.”  

     The Song Is You takes bit player’s Jean Spangler’s 1949 disappearance as a jumping off point for an exploration of La La Land’s corruption of characters who came from other regions and upturned their naïve dreams.  Abbott’s hero, Gil Hopkins, is a studio flack with a major drinking problem and a marriage that he busted up.  The Hollywood studio’s power is compared to that of the gangsters providing various nefarious services to movie stars and others.  The scenes between Hopkins and real-life party girl starlet Barbara Payton possess an authentic ring and are very funny.  There is poignancy in Hopkins being his own worst enemy and his inability to succeed simultaneously in his professional and private lives.  The solution to the mystery is a little startling, though it also reminded me a little of the tone of The Black Dahlia.

James Ellroy
     That reference brings me to James Ellroy, who wrote a blurb for Abbott, and is obviously her forebear.  His great L.A. Quartet – the best works being The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential – really pulls apart the glamour of Hollywood to examine the sleaze that is inextricable from the talent that is its core.  The ideological connections between Mickey Cohen’s West Coast Mob, the corrupt LAPD and LA County Sheriffs, and the Hollywood studios are manifested through multiple storylines, dozens of characters, and a rat-a-tat-tat style that is, at times, shockingly profane.  I couldn’t recommend them to friends without the caveat that they could get raunchy.  

     Bury Me Deep looks deeply into the Winnie Ruth Judd (The Trunk Murderess) case in Phoenix.  In reality, it was extremely lurid since two best friends were dismembered and their bodies packed into trunks and sent by railroad to L.A.  It screams tabloid and it’s surprising that it wasn’t somehow worked into the first season of American Horror Story.  However, Abbott presents female consciousness with sensitivity and refrains from detailing the seamier elements of the story, though they are more than merely suggested.

     I can imagine movies made from either of Abbott’s books described here.   Curtis Hanson directed the wonderful movie version of L.A. Confidential, but trimmed one bizarre, faux-Walt Disney storyline and a number of characters as well as turning the book’s jazzy style into a visual symphony.  Brian De Palma could not find an equivalent method in transforming Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia, though he was hobbled by Josh Friedman’s dreary script that chopped apart the book’s whole plot and threw out the best parts.  Would Kathryn Bigelow or John Dahl consider directing a movie from one of Abbott’s novels since she’s written six?

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