A few weeks ago, Slate.com writer Adam Sternbergh wrote a rapturous review of Megan Abbott’s The Fever — really, a rapturous review of Megan Abbott’s work in general. When he described her early books as “pitch-perfect evocations of classic period noir, set midcentury, but each with an ingenious contemporary twist,” I knew I had to give one a try.*
Abbott’s third novel, The Song is You, takes a real-life crime as its inspiration. In October 1949, a dancer and background actress named Jean Spangler vanished, seemingly into thin air. The only clue was her purse, found in a Los Angeles park, which contained an unfinished note:
Kirk, Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away,
Despite media coverage and a gossip columnist’s offer of a cash reward, Jean Spangler’s trail quickly went cold.
The book’s fictional protagonist, Gil “Hop” Hopkins, is the man who made sure it did.
Hop is a handsome, fast-talking “fixer” for a big Hollywood studio. When a starlet’s antics land her in the tabloids, Hop is the man called in to spin the story and to charm said starlet into more ladylike behavior in the future. Spangler’s disappearance was Hop’s big break. The ambitious young journalist made the leap to studio fixer when he helped hide the fact that Spangler had shared a drink with two of the studio’s biggest stars on the night she vanished.
No big deal, right? It’s not like Marv Sutton and Gene Merrel had anything to do with Jean’s disappearance. He may have played a bit dirty to do it, but in the end all Hop did was keep two innocent guys’ names out of the papers.
Or so Hop thinks. But two years later, Jean’s best friend Iolene comes to see Hop and accuses him of covering up Jean’s murder.
Hop’s always had a thing for the gorgeous Iolene, an African-American actress whose race keeps her dancing backup. He tells her he doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and Iolene seems to believe him. But Hop’s natural curiosity won’t let Iolene’s accusations go. Almost in spite of himself, Hop starts trying to reconstruct what happened the night Jean disappeared.
And wow, is what he finds dark.
In Abbott’s version of 1951 Los Angeles, a powerful man can get away with just about anything if he keeps it quiet enough, and women are intensely disposable, useful if and only if men want to sleep with them. In the book’s opening chapter, a rising starlet named Barbara casually tells Hop about her rape as a teenager — as a seduction tactic. It’s a twisted, disturbing little moment that sets the scene for much of what is to come.**
This book is practically a case study in how to write a compelling novel with unlikeable characters. Hop’s dogged curiosity is by far his best quality. Otherwise, he’s ambitious, selfish, and shallow — but those qualities create a wonderful layer of tension to the narrative. What will Hop do if he finds out what happened to Jean? Contact the authorities, or leverage the knowledge for his own career?
Hop is also still hung up on his ex-wife, the manipulative Midge, who left him to shack up with Hop’s best friend Jerry. This was the one aspect of the book’s plot that I found extraneous. I liked that Hop had at least one person in his life with a moral compass — that would be Jerry — but Midge and Hop’s relationship felt like a drag on the narrative.
Otherwise, though, The Song is You is a lean, fast-paced book with an incredibly well-crafted mystery at its center. We’re kept guessing not only about what happened to Jean, but about what Hop will do when he finds out. I found The Song Is You smart and absorbing, but I recommend it with two caveats. First, if you find darkness and violence a total turn-off, this is not the book for you. Second, Abbott’s rat-a-tat-tat prose took some getting used to, but I quickly settled into its rhythm.
If you think a noir mystery with a cynical antihero at its center is just your cup of tea, The Song is You belongs at the top of your to-read pile.
Rating: Buy it
* Note to other Slate writers (yes, I mean you, YA-readers-should-feel-shame person): If you want people to read books you love, tell us why those books are awesome. It’s a much more effective way to woo new readers than trashing books you think aren’t as good as the ones you like.
** This scene would feel gross or exploitative in a lot of other books. I think Abbott pulls it off, however, because she’s not using rape as a lazy way to make her book “dark” and “edgy” (it is both of those things, but that’s not the point of this scene). She’s using it to explain Hop and Barbara’s world to us. In this world, a woman’s sex appeal determines her status, but beautiful women are seen as the rightful property of powerful men — a brutal catch-22 that only the most famous stars escape. And yet, Abbott’s female characters are far from powerless. They take risks and use their resources to create possibilities for themselves in this misogynistic culture. Unfortunately, the risks are real and don’t always pay off.