Review by Mike Dennis
Things are never as they seem.
That could easily be the subtitle of Die A Little, the 2005 debut novel by Megan Abbott.Â The characters are shrouded in their own obsessions and desires, but the shroud is not easily lifted, so nothing is ever entirely clear in this stylish, neo-noir tale.
Set in Los Angeles of the mid-1950s, during the very zenith of the California-as-land-of-dreams era, Lora King lives out the dream in a little house in Pasadena with her brother, Bill.Â Theyâ€™ve always lived together, even as they passed into adulthood, in a kind of mutually protective, fairy-tale world:Â childlike Lora the schoolteacher, parading through sunny kitchens, making ham-and-pineapple-ring dinners; square-jawed Bill, saving society as a crime-fighting investigator for the LA County district attorney.Â Thereâ€™s probably a twin bed in Loraâ€™s room.
But Bill marries Alice, and everything is shaken up.
While Alice is all cleavage and plucked eyebrows, she seems to truly love Bill, but she carries the whiff of the tawdry world that Lora knows is out there, and doesnâ€™t want to think about.
Alice tries hard to bond with Lora, referring to the two of them as â€œsistersâ€.Â She invites Lora over for dinner parties, and otherwise insinuates herself into Loraâ€™s life.Â Lora wants to like Alice, but she has her suspicions.Â Alice has no photos of her family, her life before Bill is cloudy, and darn it, sheâ€™s just so different.
Pretty soon, a couple of bodies turn up, as Lora finds herself dragged into the back-alley LA cesspool of the time, a world drenched in drugs, prostitution, and murder.Â She learns terrible things she didnâ€™t really want to know, as everyoneâ€™s true motivations eventually crawl out into the sunlight.
Abbott takes her time in the unfolding of the story, narrating it in Loraâ€™s first-person, present tense voice.Â I found the present tense to be somewhat off-putting, not bringing the dark urgency to the story that was needed.Â If you can get around that (which I did), then youâ€™re in for an unusual, noirish look at LA in the fifties.
Unusual because of Abbottâ€™s distinctive feminine voice.Â Itâ€™s not the hard-as-nails voice of say, Christa Faust, but itâ€™s not trying to be.Â Itâ€™s softer, but no less dark, and always hinting at something creepy behind the milk-and-honey facade.
One more thing:Â if you donâ€™t know anything about the story, then the cover, which is a hand-painted photograph, is almost worth the price of the book all by itself.