It’s a noir tale as old as the genre itself. A sharp young teen or twenty-something is toiling away in a two-bit operation — maybe legal, maybe not — when one day, in walks The Boss. The Boss notices something special about our protagonist and soon, that former nobody is The Boss’s protégé, slowly and surely seduced by the perks that come with keeping The Boss happy.
Megan Abbott’s Queenpin tells that tale with a simple yet transformative twist: The Boss and the protégé are both women.
We never learn the name of the novel’s narrator, whom we first meet cooking the books at a crummy club called the Tee Hee. That’s just as well, because the main character of the novel is really the Queenpin, Gloria Denton, who plucks The Girl (as we’ll call her for this review) out of the Tee Hee and brings her into a much bigger and more ambitious organization.
Gloria is magnetic, glamorous and aloof and terrifying and sympathetic all at the same time. She rarely lets The Girl see anything other than her sleek, poker-faced façade, but for a while, the desire to please Gloria and become more like her is enough to make The Girl do just about anything Gloria asks. The reader can sympathize; Gloria practically leaps off the page, so charismatic and persuasive that at first you forget how dangerous she might be.
Gloria transforms The Girl into a stylish, charming, steel-spined courier who can talk a cop out of searching her trunk and deflect a nosy man’s interest in her presence at the track with a few flirtatious comments. The Girl learns Gloria’s lessons, learns to think ahead, learns how to spot an easy mark and outsmart someone trying to screw her over.
It’s all going well — until The Girl meets the wrong guy.
The wrong guy is Vic Riordan, a gambler who’s exactly the kind of mark Gloria loves to see walk into a casino. He’s a charming addict who will win big and then lose it all, certain he’s on a hot streak and bound to win bigger. But he’s also just the kind of guy The Girl can’t resist, even though Gloria has told The Girl to keep sharp and not let a man tie her down.
It’s hard to see how Vic — who even The Girl admits is a loser, albeit a charismatic one who’s good in bed — could compete with Gloria for The Girl’s attention and loyalty. But it soon becomes clear that The Girl is seduced partly by the idea of keeping a secret from Gloria. The Queenpin taught her too well, and The Girl is itching to spread her wings, to figure out how far she can go on her own.
Does it sound like I’m spoiling a lot of the plot? Believe me, I’m not. All of what I’ve described above is just the set-up before things really get interesting.
Queenpin is a lean 192 pages long and moves at a fast clip, tension building with every page. There is violence in the book, but it’s nowhere near as grim as The Song is You (the first Abbott novel I read). Instead, the book’s drama comes from the relationship between The Girl and Gloria, which moves from mentor-protégé to cat-and-mouse and back again with each new revelation. It’s a fascinating portrait of these two women, and a great reimagining of a classic noir tale.
Rating: Buy It (seriously, buy it. The ebook is only $1.99 on Kindle, Nook, and Kobo.)