One of the things that got me back into the habit of reading novels was a recommendation from Baron XIII that I pick up some hard-boiled fiction. As you might imagine, there's not a lot of room in a liberal arts curriculum for the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Jim Thompson. When I finally read Chandler's "The Big Sleep" (after much dedication on the part of the recommending party, for which I thank him), I was hooked. These elegantly-crafted stories of grey-shaded people living in a sinister universe are made of potent, habit-forming stuff!
I'll admit that I have a similar prejudice towards hard-boiled novels that I have towards exploitation films--there's a joy I derive from vintage stuff that I don't tend to get out of present-day efforts, which all-too-frequently play out like half-baked homages to the works they're trying to emulate. I'm going through the trouble of all this set-up to explain how delighted I was to discover the incredibly satisfying book that is Megan Abbott's 2008 novel "The Song Is You."
Abbott crafts an intricate mystery story around the real-life disappearance of starlet Jean Spangler that becomes a "Hollywood Babylon"-worthy story of murder and deceit populated by psychologically complex characters. Compelled by guilt over his possible involvement in Spangler's vanishing, slick Hollywood studio agent Gil Hopkins begins to investigate what happened to the actress. His inquiries lead him further into the dark side of fame, bringing him into contact with assorted seedy figures, blackmail, and organized crime.
When real-life personalities are placed into a fictional setting, there are ample opportunities for missteps stemming from the urge to compare the author's portrayal of events to the historical record. There's the possibility to demolish the story's credibility entirely with just one misplaced element, but Abbott's vision is thorough and compelling, avoiding these pitfalls entirely. Her choice to use relatively obscure true-life figures works in her favor, lending a texture of reality to her novel without begging for comparisons to what might have actually happened.
The story embraces its darkness, unflinchingly portraying the broken psyches of its players. It was no easy task to create a sympathetic character out of Gil Hopkins, a shameless opportunist who has built his career out of covering up the sometimes-significant wrongdoings of his talent pool, but the author manages to make him a compelling figure whose struggle with his own culpability is expertly drawn.
To me, the merit of a truly enjoyable book can be measured by my desire to spend more time in the world the author has created, and I'm extraordinarily eager to go back to Megan Abbott's seedy, tragic Los Angeles.