Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Noir, sex and betrayal: Part II of an interview with Megan Abbott

In the second part of her interview with Detectives Beyond Borders, Megan Abbott talks about some of the tensions and traditions that lie behind her novel Queenpin, winner of the 2008 Edgar Award for best paperback original. The novel tells the story of a young woman attracted by the aura of a powerful gangster named Gloria Denton, the queenpin of the title.

(Read Part I of the interview with Megan Abbott here.)

Queenpin is full of intimate, commanding, almost-threatening, almost-sexual gestures from Gloria Denton toward the protagonist. Is my imagination overheating, or is this another hint of dangerous, because forbidden, sex? If so, were such elements present in early crime stories? Or did I answer that one when I referred to gansels?

In part, I think a sexual edge generally shows itself in mentor/protégé tales (or in a lot of the intense male friendships that appear in hardboiled fiction, e.g., Glass Key, Long Goodbye). And stories of entering a life of crime are always a seduction of one kind of another. It's hard to avoid it — and when it's a story of a young person wanting to be like or become their mentor, or a mentor wanting to shape their student into a younger version of themselves — well, that line between identification and desire can become pretty hard to detect. The intimacy and fear of betrayal mimics or even supplants a romantic relationship. Gloria treats the protagonist with more respect and more gallantry than her lover ever does.

So much for sex; on to power and betrayal. Gloria Denton radiates power, yet you also have her display the scars that torture has left on her. It's clear why she shows these to the kid/protagonist. Why do you show them to the reader?

As a reader, I always like moments of unveiling. Up until that time, the world the protagonist is entering has been just about glamour. And then she has to see the price, even if she may not be able to understand it yet. And, to me, it's Gloria's first intimate gesture toward the protagonist. It's a warning but also a sharing thing. A confidence.

Plenty of crime movies are about a gangster's rise. Plenty of noir is about falls into abysses of one kind or another. Without, I hope, giving away too much, Queenpin contains elements of both. Is this new?

Gosh, I think the criminal's rise, except in the most giddy of gangster fantasies, is almost always presented as a terrible fall as well. But I guess that the kind of fall is different than in noir. The fall is kind of glorious in classic gangster tales, as in Scarface, rather than a quicksand descent into darkness or an existential dead-end as in most noir. And I think the former is closer to what I have in Queenpin. The common separator of hardboiled vs. noir — hardboiled novels offer some kind of order restoration at the end — well, I think for me that's more where Queenpin fits.

Were there any real-life queenpins?

There are a few, but my biggest inspiration was Virginia Hill, the one after whom Bugsy Siegel purportedly named the Flamingo Hotel in Vegas. She moved money and goods for the mob and somehow lasted for years in the most treacherous of positions. She had figured out long ago how to run with the wolves, and that kind of smarts was so dazzling to me. There were so many legends about her, and she was one of those figures where you think the legends, as over-the-top as they are, don't even come close to capturing what went on in this woman's life, what went on behind her eyes.

Without plot spoilers, can you discuss how notions of betrayal figured in your thinking as you were planning and writing Queenpin?

It was at its center. I really wanted to do a classic mentor-protégé tale, and I wanted the threat of betrayal to be about so much more than business. I wanted it to hurt. Teachers and students always want things from each other that they can't even name. They want everything. And when you transplant that dynamic to the crime world, the stakes become so high. I hoped readers wouldn't always be so sure where their allegiances lie either. I know mine shifted. As a reader, I like that unsteady feeling. It keeps me on my toes.

(Read Part I of the interview with Megan Abbott here.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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Blogger Linkmeister said...

Thanks to both of you for an enlightening read.

May 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Megan Abbott can write crime and talk about it intelligently. It will come as no surprise that she has taught literature and film. She's a credit to her academic credentials

May 13, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes Peter,
this is a fine interview - by interviewer and interviewee.

(A pity, it seems as if blogger and wordpress don't support reciprocal trackbacks)

May 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I'm not sure how trackbacks work even within Blogger, so I'll have to do things the old-fashioned way and post a link to your discussion of Queenpin here.

I found it interesting that we singled out the same features of the novel, though we ultimately disagreed on its merits. You wrote that it takes a while for the tale to gain speed, for example. For me, this builds up the suspense and makes the protagonist's rise (or is it fall?) all the more effective when it happens.

I liked your observation about the cover. I didn't notice the shadow right away, but when I did, I realized that the artist packed an impressive amount of visual information into it.

May 13, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Abbott is a fine stylist, I give you that. I guess, I try one of her earlier books.

And did you read James Sallis Drive ? Now, that is building of suspense (and he has something to tell).

May 13, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

First I interview Megan Abbott in my international crime fiction blog, and now you want me to let Sallis in, too? I'll have to put up a fence to keep the Americans out.

It would be interesting to hear what you say about Megan Abbott's earlier novels if you read them. I haven't read them either, but she did say that their endings were -- Well, I won't tell you what she said about their endings until I've read the books.

May 14, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Peter,

I would think, that the USA is part of the International Crime Scene.

May 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm sure I'll write about and read American crime fiction from time to time, though I'll probably continue to specialize in crime fiction from outside the country where I live. It's a vicarious way to travel, and it offers certain pleasures that real travel cannot.

I've written from time to time about American crime fiction as viewed from abroad -- about French readers' continuing fascination with American crime writing, for instance, or about pirated German editions of the nineteenth-century American author George Lippard.

Megan Abbott does not fit into that category, however. I interviewed her simply because Queenpin sparked a number of interesting questions.

May 15, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hm, wouldn't it be interesting to see whether there are other countries where writers have adopted the noir attitude (although I wouldn*t call Queenpin a noir). The writers Massimo Carlotto or Juan Damonte come to mind.

And yes, obviously I like reading international books, too.

May 15, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I deliberately opened the interview by asking how Megan Abbott defined noir. I liked her answer, particularly her reference to the various corners of noir.

"Noir" is an astonishingly elastic concept, able to accommodate quite a number of plausible definitions, not to mention the innumerable jokey or inappropriate ones. Oddly enough, Megan Abbott may agree with you that Queenpin is not noir, at least with respect to its ending. Oddly enough, I disagree with her.

So, with the caveat that a noir attitude is not the easiest concept to nail down, I'd say that Jean-Patrick Manchette expressed it and perhaps Jean-Claude Izzo as well. Even Yasmina Khadra does so at times, I think.

May 15, 2008  

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