If you have never read the work of Megan Abbott, do yourself a
favor and get a copy of BURY ME DEEP right now. In this, just her
fourth novel, she has already established herself as one of the
great mystery writers working in America today and is on her way to
becoming a bestselling author.
Abbott labors in the hard-boiled, noir section of the mystery
genre. She, along with authors like Charles Ardai, Jason Starr and
Charlie Huston, is breathing fresh life into one of America’s
most important literary contributions of the 20th century. All of
her previous novels were nominated for Edgar Awards, and QUEENPIN,
her second, won both an Edgar and Barry Award. BURY ME DEEP stands
an excellent chance of getting her another Edgar.
What Abbott does that is so unique and fresh is revisit old true
crime cases from the glory days of noir and re-imagine them. So
QUEENPIN was inspired by the true life story of Virginia Hill,
part-time actress, mob courier and, most famously, main squeeze of
Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel. Her third novel, THE SONG IS
YOU, fictionalized the real-life disappearance off the face of the
earth of dark-haired starlet Jean Spangler in 1946. Of course,
Abbott is not the only mystery writer who works this side of the
street. James Ellroy has turned the real history of 1950s Los
Angeles and modern America itself into noir in a series of
excellent books, the latest of which, BLOOD’S A ROVER, will
be out in September. BURY ME DEEP tackles the now forgotten but
once tabloid-fueled case of Winnie Ruth Judd, the “Trunk
Murderess” or “Blonde Butcher” as the papers
christened her. The case was right out of film noir.
In October 1931, the bodies of two young Phoenix women were
found dissected in two abandoned steamer trunks left at the
Southern Pacific Railroad Station in LA. After four days the trail
led to the 26-year-old Judd, who confessed, claiming self-defense.
Only an insanity plea kept her from the gallows. She would spend 30
years in a mental institution despite seven attempts to escape. In
her meticulous research, Abbot uncovered a sliver of doubt. After
all, in film noir, nothing is what it seems. Could Judd have been
set up by a powerful man in the community who she and the girls
were involved with? Using many of the actual details of the case,
Abbot weaves a spellbinding tale.
She tells the story from the point of view of Marion Seeley, a
young naïve woman whose doctor husband is a morphine junkie.
Unable to hold a medical license in the states, Dr. Seeley in
desperation takes a job as a doctor at a Mexican mine. He
can’t bring his wife, so he gets her a job as a clerk in an
Arizona TB clinic until he can make some money and return for her.
The lonely girl is soon befriended by two women: Louise, a
world-wise nurse at the clinic, and her roommate, Ginny, who is
slowly dying from TB.
Abbott does a perfect job of bringing us back into this lost
world, a world of kidskin gloves, soft cloche hats and
“shingle bob” hairstyles. Prohibition is still in
effect, so the book floats along in a sea of bootleg gin and booze.
And even though the Depression is lingering into its second painful
year, the spirit of the Jazz Age is alive and well with the girls,
who are famous for their wild house parties. You can almost hear
“The Charleston” playing in the background. The
hilarity might still be there, but the world is suddenly a much
darker and more ominous place.
Louise, of course, has something of a reputation at the clinic.
Rumors swirl about the night the cops were called to the Dempsey
Hotel and Louise was spotted on the fifth floor corridor
“going on two o’clock in the morning, only one shoe on,
and they brought her in and they let her go because some calls were
made…” Rumor also has it that young Marion “liked
their (Louise and Ginny’s) lively ways.” Early on,
Marion wonders, “Who did these girls know?” Our heroine
is going to find out.
Within 34 days of her arrival, Marion has dyed her hair to look
like a “platinum pleasure blonde.” She resembles
actress Joan Bennett. And here, Abbott turns classic film noir on
its head. Usually, it is the “femme fatale” who draws
the unsuspecting male to his doom. But here there is a “homme
fatale” who attracts Marion with his siren call.
“Gentleman Joe” Lanigan is an important man in the
community, owner of a chain of pharmacies and regular attendee at
Sunday mass. He is also married with children and an invalid wife
he must care for. “Gentleman Joe” is a frequent guest
at the girls’ parties, and he, like many other outstanding
men in the community, including the sheriff, enjoys giving the
girls swell gifts and the most modern appliances.
There have been great female writers of hard-boiled crime
stories in the past, such as Dorothy B. Hughes and Patricia
Highsmith. It was never exclusively a male preserve. But Abbott
perfectly and beautifully captures Marion’s descent into the
vortex: a sensual world she never knew existed. She falls hard for
Joe. Abbott writes noir from a female perspective, which makes this
not just a mystery novel but also a work of women’s
literature. She writes: “When he looked at her, she could
feel it like his finger, the tip of his finger, was tickling the
lace bristles on her underthings. Like it was flicking up and down
down there. And she didn’t know where she got this idea
because nothing like that had ever happened to her.”
However, this is anything but a romance. This is noir where,
once the descent begins, it ends inevitably in disaster. Marion is
wretched by guilt while thrilled by desire. She imagines writing
her sick husband: “I am a sinner, Dr. Seeley.
What’s more, I came to love my sin.” And in
another imagined letter, Abbott puts in Marion’s words the
very definition of noir: “For some things, there can be
no forgiveness, nor even words. Some things are meant only to be
fevers in the brain.” Wow!
And like all great noir, Marion’s plight sucks you in as
the ending steadily builds along with a growing sense of dread. In
recent years, film fans such as myself have been delighted to see a
return of interest in Pre-Production Code Hollywood movies. Those
were the films made from 1930-1934 before the iron-clad censorship
of the Production Code, dictated in large part by the Catholic
Church, decided what viewers would see for the next three
This book perfectly reflects that era. Imagine the great Barbara
Stanwyck in the 1934 movie Baby Face. That is
Abbott’s Marion. She has to fend for herself in a man’s
world --- a world where powerful men use women as sex objects and
then casually dispose of them when they become a threat. And as the
Jazz Age gave way to the Great Depression, desperation spread like
a fast-moving cancer. Desperate people must do desperate things to
BURY ME DEEP is not just a fine mystery. It is an American
novel, filled with humanity and a thirst for justice. We are going
to be enjoying the work of Megan Abbott for decades to come.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on December 26, 2010