It’s a hell of a debut for Megan Abbott: a female led mystery in 1940’s Hollywood with a distinctly unreliable narrator.
There’s murder, a femme-fatale and a too trusting dope of a man. But it feels like Abbott is referencing women’s films of the 1940s, as much as she is standard noir. As if she spent many an hour watching and re-watching Joan Crawford as MILDRED PIERCE, just so she could get the perfect balance between vulnerability and steel.
The plot finds a policeman, Bill, meeting cute with a girl, Alice, who works for a Hollywood studio, and the two falling madly in love. But his sister, Lora – a teacher – who he has always been incredibly (almost weirdly) close to, is both fascinated by this new addition to her family, and wary of her. Alice reveals herself to also have a teaching qualification and the two sister-in-laws end up working together, car-pooling, becoming fast friends. Alice even sets up Lora on dates. But Lora can’t lose her suspicions, and as cracks start appearing in Alice’s carefully constructed façade, Lora starts investigating.
Looking at Abbott’s bibliography, it seems an incredible eight years since Abbott last gave us one of her noir LA thrillers. And while I’ve enjoyed the books she’s given us since, it’s still a shame, as classic-era Hollywood mysteries is a genre I adore beyond reason. DIE A LITTLE is really strong on the psychology of its two female leads, but what really struck me this (my second) time of reading was how much detail she grasps of the era. Sights, smells, brand names, fashions, fads – they’re all here and utterly convincing. If it emerged that Megan Abbott had a Tardis and was frequently visiting the 1940s for research, I wouldn’t give even a slight gasp of surprise.
It’s a great debut, but of the four books she wrote with the classic noir feel, this is probably the weakest. Undoubtedly, it’s well written and has a number of great lines. But as much as I liked it, this is one of those irritating stories which relies on the major characters not sharing things you think they’d share – or asking questions you’d think they really ought to ask.
However, it’s impossible to read this and not been haunted afterwards by the thought of Lora staring at Alice, frightened and fascinated at the same time. Wanting to be her sister-in-law even as she wants her out of her life.